Skip to comments.Sex & the LPGA
Posted on 09/18/2006 9:37:06 PM PDT by pissant
It's déjà vu all over again. The Tour's great debate this year -- whether to sell itself with sex -- has been a recurring theme in women's sports since the 1950's. But the real question is: Why are we even talking about it?
It's late winter in Sacramento, California, and the sexiest woman on the LPGA Tour is dribbling cornbread down the front of her shirt in the elevator of the Marriott Residence Inn. While this isn't what the average person would consider a seductive moment, Carin Koch -- with her long blond ponytail, striking blue eyes and world-class smile -- still manages to look beautiful (See related article, "Koch Is It!"). She's radiant as she laughs at her sloppy eating habits, opening the door to her one-bedroom suite and picking up her three-year-old son, Oliver, in a mad smooch. It isn't the pose the guys at Playboy had in mind when they invited the 31-year-old Swede, the winner of their sexiest women on the LPGA Internet poll, to pose in the magazine
"I don't think of myself as sexy. I don't think of myself as Playboy material," says Koch, who won $421,329 on tour last season and counts Ping, Polo and Jelly Belly jelly beans among her sponsors. The Playboy.com crowning, which took place in March, had such a negligible impact on Koch that she can't even recall exactly when she found out about it -- she just remembers laughing. Koch said no to posing even before the magazine could spit out a sum. Sure, she was flattered that 6,854 voters -- 24 percent of the 28,247 total -- found her attractive. "But the biggest part in my decision [not to pose] is that I'm a role model and a mom," she says. "I'd like to get more attention for how I play than how I look."
Koch's Playboy.com selection coincided with another event that underscored the image problem faced by women's pro golf. On March 8, LPGA commissioner Ty Votaw convened the first-ever Player Summit in Phoenix. Attendance was mandatory. And so, 178 players from 23 nations gathered to hear Votaw's five-year plan for increasing interest and revenues in the LPGA. He offered "five points of celebrity" for each player to work on: performance, appearance, passion, relevance and approachability.
The Playboy.com poll, entitled "Babes of the LPGA," addressed only "appearance," of course, asking: "Does the LPGA have any beautiful birdies or are they all putt ugly?" When the site's editors were putting together the feature, they needed photos of 10 players, including Koch, so they put in a call to Votaw. Did the commissioner worry that his players might be presented in questionable way? Nope -- he just sent the photos.
"They didn't ask us for nude pictures of our players," Votaw says. "They asked for pictures." And he didn't have a problem with the poll. "I thought it was a validation of something I've thought all along, and that is: We have a number of very attractive athletes who play on the LPGA Tour."
Playboy agrees. "There's this perception about women golfers, that they're not attractive, that they're masculine-looking," says Blair Fischer, sports editor of Playboy.com. "We wanted to see if that was the case, and we found that it just wasn't so."
This, of course, is exactly the conclusion Votaw would like the general public to reach about the LPGA. The poll not only garnered the tour a lot of media ink, it re-ignited an age-old debate over whether sex is the best way to sell women's golf. Fifty-two years after the founding of the LPGA, 30 years after the passage of Title IX and five years after Lisa Leslie, Mia Hamm and the Williams sisters proved that athleticism, sweat and grit are a pretty convincing marketing tool, the idea of using sex to sell a woman's sport seems decidedly retro. Yet the LPGA is facing decidedly modern marketing challenges as it struggles to find its niche in the competitive sports entertainment marketplace. The retirement of Nancy Lopez, the tour's most charismatic player; a wobbly economy; spotty TV exposure; two incredibly talented top players who have yet to find their own brand of sizzle; and a less than interested press: No wonder Votaw took Playboy's call.
The topic of sexing up women's golf draws mixed reviews from the pros. The younger generation seems to take the subject of sex and the Playboy.com poll lightly. Rising U.S. star Laura Diaz, 27, stated boldly last year that the LPGA "should market sex. Sex sells." Charismatic rookie Natalie Gulbis, 19, a candidate for the tour's next "it" girl, says of the Playboy Web site, "I need to work out a little, and maybe they'll put me on it next year." Cristie Kerr, a top-10 player, told Golf World July/August 2002 that she would pose for Playboy with "a towel covering all the right places." Kerr points out that golf is part of the entertainment business, and sex is a given in this world. "For us not to use it wouldn't be in step with the times," she says. For LPGA Hall of Famer Kathy Whitworth and others, Votaw's mandate harkens back to a time when pros wore Lana Turner sweaters and Jan Stephenson was Dunlop's calendar girl. "I can't imagine us going down that road again," says Whitworth, 63. "It didn't work then, it won't work now. If this is the only way we can make this organization grow, I think it will die, just shrivel up. The sponsors aren't going to pay a million dollars a week for someone to come in in a scantily clad outfit. They can pay a model to do that."
Sex may sell Budweiser or Victoria's Secret bras. But golf? "Everybody keeps saying sex sells," says Mary Jo Kane, professor of sport sociology at the University of Minnesota and director of the Tucker Center for Research on Women and Sport. "Sells what? Maybe it gets a blip in terms of people who write about it in the sports world, but does it translate to more sales on the ground? Does it make the purses bigger? Do corporate sponsorship and TV coverage go up? Show me the data that says that. Show me the research, the marketing studies. Show me a conversation where a person says, 'I want to buy season tickets to a team because the players are sexy.'"
"I feel the issue has gotten confused," says Charlie Mechem, who served as commissioner of the LPGA from 1990 to 1995. "People say it's important for women to be marketed as women, and the next thing you know the conversation goes full bore to the other extreme -- you gotta sell sex. It's not accurate and it's not intelligent."
"Taking your clothes off is a desperate act," says tour player Helen Alfredsson. "For me, sexy has nothing to do with having your clothes off. We've gotten stuck. Why is Fred Couples so sexy? We don't ask him to take his clothes off. It has to do with charisma and how you carry yourself, how intriguing you are. Maybe that's what we, as a tour, lack."
Alfredsson seems a bit wary of being expected to have the whole package: "We have to be pretty. We have to be skinny. We have to wear makeup. And we have to hit it 300 yards. Do you know how hard it is to play in something skimpy?"
Using attractive women to market the tour isn't new. Marlene and Alice Bauer were among the 13 founding members of the LPGA Tour in 1950, when the figure on the trophy was male. There was no such thing as political correctness, so the two attractive, athletic sisters decided to market their physical assets. The Bauers wore short shorts when everyone else was playing in long skirts, and their pinup-girl looks got them on Wheaties boxes and helped them procure lucrative exhibition matches. (At that time the leading LPGA money winner was taking home around $8,000 a year.) "The sight of these well set-up young blondes on the fairway delights male tournament fans who somehow found it difficult to be moved by the genuine talents of the leathery-faced ladies who usually inhabit the top ranks in women's golf" is how a Life magazine article described the scene in 1950. "I like the shorts as well as the shots," one gallery member was quoted as saying.
"In the olden days, people would ask me what would be the ideal client in women's golf," says legendary sports agent Mark McCormack, founder and chairman of IMG. "I said I would like a Marilyn Monroe that played golf like Babe Zaharias."
If any golfer ever fit that description, it was Jan Stephenson. In 1974, during her first season on tour, the Australian sensation chalked up six top-10 finishes and was named Rookie of the Year. In 1977 she agreed to pose for the LPGA's Fairway magazine lying seductively on a bed and wearing a nightgown slit up her thigh. According to Stephenson, Ray Volpe, the LPGA commissioner at the time, encouraged her to do it without the approval of his board or the players, hoping she would take the tour in a new direction. "The way it was presented was that this is for the future of the tour, for your future and your success," she says. "In those days, female professional athletes were almost looked upon as freaks." She posed for several more Fairway shots, including a re-creation of Marilyn Monroe skirt-to-the-breeze shot from 1955's Seven Year Itch. Ironically, the photos didn't match the real woman. "My nickname was the Room Service Queen," she says. "I never went out."
By the early '80s Stephenson had seven Tour victories, including three majors and 15 top-10 finishes. But apparently her golf still didn't speak for itself. One of her sponsors, Dunlop, asked her to pose for a calendar as part of a promotion to help unload a large inventory of golf balls. Among her 12 poses was one of her, seemingly naked, in a bathtub of golf balls. Dunlop offered a free calendar with every dozen balls purchased. They not only sold out their inventory, they had to produce more. They sold almost two and a half million balls. Stephenson told The Ottawa Citizen before the 2000 du Maurier Classic, "However distasteful those campaigns might have been, it really helped the LPGA. It got us a lot of tournaments. I wined and dined a lot of sponsors, wore low-cut dresses, did the whole thing... And we got a lot of great contracts. In those days, we didn't have the money there is on the tour now. And there might not have been if I hadn't done that." If she has one regret about those seductive pictures, it's about the time they took away from the prime of her golf life. "In the long run, people look at how many wins you had. If it wasn't for all that time and energy spent, I believe I'd be in the Hall of Fame," she said recently. At 51, Stephenson would happily go back into the studio if the fledgling Senior tour asked. She considers it her responsibility to the sport. "I think Ty Votaw's right. Athletes are celebrities, and you have to present the whole package. You need to gain that attention and excitement in the media. It brings in sponsors and people come to see what all the fuss is about."
When glamour-girl golfers are mentioned, Stephenson's name is almost always paired with another LPGA Rookie of the Year, Laura Baugh. Voted "The Most Beautiful Golfer" by Golf Digest in 1971, Baugh's debutante looks and Ultra Brite smile enabled her to make a substantial living from endorsements. Her golf career ultimately took a backseat to a complex life story, which included spousal abuse, eating disorders and alcoholism, but she remains the poster girl for a sort of all-American sex appeal. She also never won a tournament, and, not unlike her modern-day counterpart in women's tennis, proved the axiom that in the endorsement world, a lithe build and provocative pout pull more weight than a winning record. When the "sex sells" mantra is uttered, no name comes up more often than Anna Kournikova. "There's no question that Anna Kournikova helps sell tennis," says Mark McCormack. "There's no question that Laura Baugh and Jan Stephenson helped sell golf. I don't get it. I think people get so twisted about the subject."
Maybe they're twisted because of the subject's implications. "If you live by the sword, you die by the sword," says Donna Lopiano, Executive Director of the Women's Sports Foundation. "When you sell sex, you invite sexism in how you are treated. The question is, do female athletes want to be treated as athletes or as sex objects or decorative objects?" Lopiano maintains that there is a line that every women athlete has to think about before crossing. In fact, there is such a thing as bad publicity.
That's a line Jill McGill, the runner-up to Koch in the Playboy.com poll, decided not to cross. It was practical concerns, not moral outrage, that prompted the outgoing, six-foot Californian to turn down Playboy's six figure offer to appear in its pages: Among other things, she feared losing her sponsors. "You don't need to be luscious or seductive" to sell women's golf, she says. "But I would say that sex appeal helps. The way our culture is, I would be shocked if it changed in our lifetime."
Carin Koch begs to differ: "I don't think that selling our tour is about sex appeal. I think it's about appeal."
The person who personified that appeal was Nancy Lopez. Lopez was all game, all smiles, all welcoming girl-next-door, but the "sex sells" approach did not enter into her equation. She exploded in her 1978 rookie season, winning nine tournaments, including one major, and became the only LPGA player to win Rookie of the Year, Player of the Year and the Vare trophy in the same season. She didn't need gimmicks or hoochi-mama outfits to get people's attention. She just played like she loved it, smiled like she meant it, and signed a zillion autographs. Lopez was and is a born ambassador. She gave herself to the gallery, and they offered their hearts in return.
Who will pick up Lopez's torch? It would be nice if a player with Tiger Woods's one-in-a-generation combination of talent, looks and fashion sense came along. Commissioner Votaw was quoted as saying that if the PGA Tour didn't have Tiger, it would be facing the same issues as the LPGA. A few days later, PGA Tour Commissioner Finchem walked up to Votaw and said, "Guess what, I do have Tiger, and I am facing the same problems."
The LPGA Tour's top players are stunning athletes, but no one player seems to possess the whole package that attracts a following. "Ty's biggest dilemma is the three at the top," says famed golf instructor Butch Harmon, referring to Annika Sorenstam, Karrie Webb and Se Ri Pak. "They're great golfers, but they're shy, and that comes across." Most LPGA players will offer up their cell phone numbers and invite you to dinner if you stand there long enough, but Sorenstam and Webb rarely interact with the crowd. The men's Tour would kill for a comparable rivalry. They could be this century's Chris and Martina if they'd only take off their Oakleys and sit for a spell. "A little smile here, a little acknowledgement there -- it's not a lot but it does wonders," says 32-year Tour veteran JoAnne Carner. "I also think the sunglasses really affect everything. You can't see their eyes. You don't know if they're really smiling or whether they've got green eyes or blue eyes or what."
It's easy to point the finger at Sorenstam and Webb, but even if they were stepping out a bit more in the public's direction, would anybody notice? "At best, women are getting eight percent of media sports coverage and only recently have surpassed horse racing, dog racing and fly-fishing," says the Women's Sports Foundation's Lopiano. A DePauw University study conducted on 52 Saturday issues of The New York Times showed that in 1989, women received 2.2 percent of all sports coverage. Ten years later, that number had risen to only 6.7 percent. The nation's two largest golf magazines haven't had a woman on the cover in the last year, even though during that 12-month period Sorenstam won eight tournaments, had 19 top-ten finishes, shot an historic 59, and set or tied a total of 30 LPGA records. She also became the first LPGA player to cross the $8 million mark in career earnings. Sports Illustrated hasn't had a woman golfer on its cover since 1978. Sorenstam's 59 received a one-sentence blurb in the magazine's national edition. Sports Illustrated's Golf Plus section gave it four pages, the same number of pages as its pictorial linking the LPGA Tour to an annual gathering of lesbians in Palm Springs coinciding with the Kraft Nabisco Championship. Maybe the "sex sells" chorus keeps being repeated because it's the one surefire way to gain the attention of the male-dominated press.
Indeed, the media and a segment of the general public can't seem to get enough of one aspect of women's sports: the lingering perception that most female golfers are lesbians. "For some reason, the gay issue is a fascination for many men," says former tour star and current ABC golf analyst Judy Rankin. She fumes over Sports Illustrated's recent story. "I think S.I. did women's pro golf a huge disservice. They wrote that article in a distasteful and outrageous manner, and intentionally connected it to the LPGA Tour. They think it sells magazines, but it has nothing to do with the truth."
Perhaps part of the reason the "sex-sells" argument persists is to disprove that perception and calm homophobic fears. "It's the ubiquitous, invisible 'L' word," says Mary Jo Kane. "People will take you aside and whisper that there's an image problem, meaning they're concerned that women athletes are 'too masculine.' As a result, those who promote women's sports go overboard to establish that, in spite of their participation in sports, they're still feminine. And ultimately, they're heterosexual."
Even with these challenges, the oldest women's professional sport still has plenty going for it. First and foremost, its players. Their stories are not being told. "I think the diversity of the LPGA Tour has never been properly exposed," says Rankin. "If you go from the young girl on the tour who has her dad with her, to the other young girl who has her brother caddying for her, to the women who are married and raising kids, to the people who have made it a lifelong career and put the rest of their life aside -- it embodies every single thing women do. I don't think that that kind of diversity has ever been exploited."
"Forget sex -- just make it cool." says Gabrielle Reece, the former beach volleyball player who is currently gunning for an LPGA Tour card. Ironically, Reece has posed in Playboy; her arty, tasteful pictorial appeared in the January 2000 issue after she left beach volleyball. "The issue, more than sex, is to find a way to portray yourself in a way that's close to who you are, just a heightened, more polished version," she says. "Every golfer is different. By letting them be individuals, you'd cast a wider net that will attract all different kinds of people [to the sport] for all different kinds of reasons. These women golfers are great at it. That has longer legs than 'Let's wear shorter shorts or tighter pants.'"
Appeal comes in many packages. Sex appeal is one of them, but that's not the same as sex. Arnold Palmer reeks of the former, but you would never say he's selling the latter. Charisma plays a huge part in it. Babe Didrikson Zaharias wasn't the least bit sexy, but without her magnetism the LPGA may never have gotten off the ground. Laura Davies is a crowd-pleaser. Dottie Pepper is feisty as all get-out. The list goes on and on.
"We should be selling attractiveness, not sex," says Charlie Mechem. "There's no one who can't be attractive in terms of how they carry themselves, how they're groomed, how they play."
Why can't a woman's sexiness be about her sport? Hasn't Mia Hamm proved the ultimate beauty of sweat, toughness and a perfectly played shot? Isn't Jennifer Capriati's grit, heart and power the consummate attraction? This isn't the pin-up era, it's the post-up, pitch in from 30 feet era. "We need to build something deeper than what we look like," says Helen Alfredsson. "I want us to find something sustainable. We need to bring out the sexiness, the funniness, the craziness."
The suggestion box is now open.
Hell yea! Now we're talking. For that, I think I'd need a bigger HDTV!
This is European Golfer Natalie Gilbis
The sport has markedly improved in the last 5 minutes
Hasn't Mia Hamm proved the ultimate beauty of sweat, toughness and a perfectly played shot? Isn't Jennifer Capriati's grit, heart and power the consummate attraction?
Let me think....mmmmmmmmm...NO
Meeeaaaoooowwww! That's some fairway.
If they want the big bucks, look at women's tennis.
I think both those gals were pretty hot. But golfers need to get with the program. There is no reason that a miniskirt and skimpy blouse can't be worn on a golf course. Heck, the beer girls are usually pretty nice.
But what percentage of the women's players are lesbians?
Yep. Though I miss Sabatini.
Lipstick lesbians would be welcomed. ;o)
LOL. Not exactly. Use caution...European decency standards..
How is she European? She was born in Sacramento, CA.
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