The Pimping of Candace Parker

Los Angeles Sparks forward Candace Parker is a stunning athlete, both in terms of skill and beauty. She is also as popular as a WNBA star can be in this country. The rap supergroup Wu-Tang Clan even referenced her on their recent album:

You’re a starter, like Candace Parker…GPA 4.0 and the game’s complete / Skin tone buttercream, all defensive-team / Dreamgirl like Jennifer Hudson, you’re my queen. -“Starter” by the Wu-Tang Clan

Candace on the cover of ESPN the Magazine

Candace on the cover of ESPN the Magazine

And the recent 23 March issue of ESPN the Magazine features a cover story features (a very pregnant) Candace Parker and her marketing role for both the WNBA in particular, and women’s sports in general. It is part of ESPNtM’s tribute to Women’s History Month. The issue includes statistics on participation rates among female athletes, as well as the struggles of female athletes with concussions. Here is one can learn from the article—Candace is wholesome; she is beautiful; she demands a lot from herself. What else? She is normal. And…she is wholesome. And…she is…beautiful. Oh, and she is not crass. And…and…married to Shelden Williams…

The entire article came across as a desperate attempt to sell Candace Parker to male-dominated industry. The problem is the term desperate as there appeared to be a lot of repetition in the article of points that most of us already knew—Candace is talented, beautiful, and down-to-earth. But this desperation speaks to a larger problem with the selling of “female” sports.

While Title IX is not exclusively focused on sports, nor is it solely for the benefit of women (see Western Kentucky’s promotion to FBS football), this amendment has attempted to create equal opportunities—or at least equal access—for people regardless of gender. This important amendment focuses primarily on institutions or education program “that received Federal financial assistance.” In the case of college athletics, it ensure that roughly the same number of athletic scholarship went to both male and female athletes. Based on the ESPN statistics, it is safe to assume that Title IX has dramatically increased female participation in athletics. And in some schools around the country, women’s sports teams rival in popularity at least the second most popular male sport—women’s basketball at Connecticut, Old Dominion or Tennessee; women’s soccer in Virginia or North Carolina; softball at Arizona and UCLA; women’s volleyball at Hawai’i.

What has been difficult to overcome are the hurdles to successfully creating and marketing professional leagues for women in the United States. The Candace Parker article notes what many sports fans already know—the WNBA often plays in front half-filled (or half-empty) arenas. This, despite the fact that the WNBA has been in existence for over a decade. To top that, the pay difference between the WNBA and NBA is so large that many of the WNBA players often play in Europe during the off-season.

The problem is not the talent of these women. I have had the (un)fortunate opportunity to play some pick-up games against members of Alabama’s women’s team and they can box out, pound the boards, and hit a pull up with just about any of the guys running that day. Sure, if these women were taking on their counterparts on the men’s team it would be a different story (well, maybe not if former UA coach Mark Gottfried was coaching them “up”). But the notion that some average Joe could take Candace Parker to the hole, or can blast a shot past Hope Solo, or hit a pitch off of Jennie Finch is erroneous. They are all extremely talented and know how to play their sport well—it is what they do for a living.

I would argue that problems lies in the attempts to expand the audience for women’s athletics. There is no doubt that the WNBA and other women’s leagues and team appeal to young girls. If I had a daughter, I certainly would like for her to see Candace Parker and Mia Hamm as role models and proof that she could play sports, if she so chooses. But the problem is expanding to the male demographics. And I see two reasons for this.

Candace Parker from her days at Tennessee

Candace Parker from her days at Tennessee

First, some men have a difficult time seeing females as “athletes.” While this goes back to the “women-have-no-game” stereotype, it goes a bit further than that. It hits at the perception that “beautiful” women cannot be athletic. This, despite the fact that Jennie Finch, Serena Williams and Parker are all considered beautiful. I would argue that men find it difficult to see beauty in a woman who is muscular and athletic.

Think of how female athletes are marketed. Anna Kournikova was one of the most widely known female athletes in the world, but it was not because of her tennis play. Successful tennis stars like Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova appear in numerous ads, but few tune in specifically to see them play tennis. It is the female body itself (i.e., sex or sexiness) that sells and not their game.

On the other hand, Tiger Woods can play off of his golfing talents; LeBron James is known for his basketball game and can be commercially successful. Even Michael Jordan can still move Haynes products despite the fact that his playing days are long over. Jordan is still known as a basketball player and that helps him sell.

What this demonstrates is that men can use their status as athletes to sell products, while it tends to be the beauty and sex appeal of female athletes (rather than their skill). Yes, men are also sold on their sex-appeal (see David Beckham), but their sport also carries them. It does not appear to work the same for all female athletes. This speaks to the notion of female athletes not being viewed as “athletes,” but more often as models.

Furthermore, the female as athlete does not necessarily play to the notion of men living their sports “dreams” vicariously through their favorite athletes or teams. Men often envision themselves as Michael Jordan hitting the game winner, or Joe Carter blasting the walk-off shot in the World Series, or John Elway leading a game winning drive. I doubt that many men see themselves as Brandi Chastain scoring a PK to win the World Cup (most probably just see themselves scoring with Ms. Chastain). This notion makes it difficult for men to feel a part of the (women’s) game.

This transitions to the second point—women’s sports are “foreign.” It can be seen as different or foreign from men’s sports. Trying to sell the WNBA to men who are used to seeing rim-rattling dunks, no-look passes, ankle-breaking crossovers, and backboard-pinned blocks is similar to attempts at sell soccer to the football-crazed United States. The sports are completely different in the minds of many. The WNBA has a different tempo and playing style/strategy when compared to the NBA. While both are the same sport in principle, the two can easily be viewed as “different.”

Additionally, there are so many sports in this country that it is extremely difficult for this “different” sport to compete. MLS has a lot of trouble for the very same reason. Personally, I have only caught a few WNBA games simply because, in terms of sports, there was nothing else on (or as it was last year, Candace Parker was playing). In 2005, the only reason I watched the NCAA Women’s Softball World Series was because the NHL had a lockout (and again, not much else was on in terms of sports).

Stop it!  She can kick your ass!

Stop it! She can kick your ass!

Title IX has gone a long way in creating avenues for female participation in education programs and sports. The results are seen in the number of successful women’s sports teams throughout the NCAA. It has come so far that there are enough quality players to create women’s leagues such as the WNBA. However, the selling of these leagues are doomed to failed thanks in part to the difficulties in expanding its audience to include a male demographic who have a hard time buying women as athletes or their leagues as comparable to male leagues.

The desperation to sell women’s professional athletics in the United States leads to leagues like the WNBA resorting to the unfortunate pimping of its talented (and beautiful) athletes, such as Candace Parker. Unfortunately, there are not enough Johns out there to buy the product.

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report on 31 March 2009.