Sex, muscles, basketball: How do you sell an athletic woman?

August 15, 2012, 9:00 AM UTC

Updated: 8/28/2012, 2:31 p.m.

FORTUNE — The basketball players on the WNBA’s New York Liberty are many things, but they are not gods. You can get close to them; some tickets in the lower section sell for $35, and you can get in the stadium for as little as $10. Players sometimes talk to you — forward Kelley Cain spoke straight to the crowd before the Liberty’s June game against the Seattle Storm at New Jersey’s Prudential Center stadium. “We need you guys to stand up and cheer as loud as you can,” she said into a microphone, “and help us to get this win tonight!”

What followed did not look like an NBA game. For one, there were no cheerleaders in two-piece sparkle-spandex outfits. Instead, the Liberty trots out a dance team called the “Lil’ Torches” during breaks. The Torches are 12 kids, between 6 and 14 years old, with elaborately colored hair. At the first break, they danced — adorably, and innocuously — to Carly Rae Jepsen’s sugar pop hit “Call Me Maybe.”

Between quarters and during time-outs, cheery Liberty staff ran on the court to chuck T-shirts to fans. They didn’t need to use those stadium-staple launching cannons, though, as most of the audience was within throwing range. Prudential can seat 18,500 basketball fans, but for the Liberty game, the top rows were curtained off, empty.

The WNBA wants to fill more seats, but 16 years after its formation, it is still trying to figure out how. “I think if you were to turn back the clock and talk to some of the people who were here launching the league, they might have said, ‘Let’s just extend the NBA year-round and women will be playing instead of men,’” says Hilary Shaev, the NBA’s vice president of marketing. “We have learned that it’s not as simple as that.”

Americans have a complicated relationship with female athletes. During the Olympics, we love them. They had some great moments in the 2012 games, which concluded Sunday. The United States women’s soccer team beamed from the gold medal podium in front of a crowd of 80,000 after defeating Japan last Thursday. Throughout the games, the NBC cameras couldn’t get enough of gymnast Gabby Douglas and swimmer Missy Franklin, both likable medalists. This year, America sent more women than men to compete in London for the first time.

But male and female Olympians return to different worlds this week: most of the women have nowhere to play professionally in the U.S. Take female soccer players, whose U.S. pro league folded this year. Goalie Hope Solo recently told Newsweek that the team must come out on top at the games because if it doesn’t, “People are going to forget all about us.”

Even athletes with a pro league at home feel the need to ride out the Olympic exposure. Indeed, every member of the U.S. Women’s Basketball team also plays in the WNBA. They are all returning gold medalists. The league must now showcase those athletes. “We haven’t found the exact answer,” Shaev says, “but we think that’s it’s really important that we put ourselves forward as different but not less than the NBA.”

How, then, can the WNBA ensure that it isn’t perceived as “less than?” Granted, the women’s league is noticeably different from the men’s: for one, it isn’t above the rim, meaning its players don’t dunk, and generally don’t show up on the hotshot ESPN “Sports Center”reel.

NBA and WNBA: One sport, two worlds

The league’s performance figures tell a mixed story. On the one hand, it was profitable in 2011. Game attendance has increased each year over the past five seasons, according to the league, averaging 7,955 fans per game during 2011, up 1.25% from 2010. The three teams that accounted for the bulk of the attendance increase were also profitable — that’s the Chicago Sky, the Minnesota Lynx, and the Washington Mystics. The latter led the league in attendance with an average of 10,449 fans per game.

But the men’s league blows that out of the water. Popular NBA teams average almost twice the number of fans per game, and tickets are more expensive. Courtside seats at a Knicks game sell for $2,500. In comparison, high rollers can watch courtside at a Liberty game for $250. Of course, there’s a big salary gap between the leagues too. As of 2011, the annual salary for an NBA player who would warm the bench was almost $500,000, more than 10 times greater than the minimum annual salary for a WNBA player in 2011, which was $36,570.

The WNBA wants to use its affordability as a selling point — the league markets the players as accessible and the games as family fun. Going forward, the WNBA will hone in on three key groups, Shaev says: African-Americans, lesbians, and youth.

“Of course,” she adds, “there’s something to be said for reaching that mainstream American sports fan who knows everything about sports and [wants] to know every stat. We want them all to be our fans.”

But the WNBA might not get the growth it needs, Shaev admits, if it focuses on 18-34 year-old male sports addicts. Networks like ESPN have those fans on lock.

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You don’t see women’s sports in the media very much, despite the fact that more and more women are athletes. Fewer than 300,000 girls played on high school sports teams in 1971, the year before the passage of Title IX, which banned discrimination against women at every educational institution receiving federal funds. The upshot: schools had to spend as much money on women’s sports programs as men’s. The law shook American athletics. Today, more than 3 million high school girls play sports. Women now comprise nearly 40% of all interscholastic and intercollegiate sport participation. Yet they see many more male athlete role models than professional athletic women on television and in ads.

It all comes down to marketability; Americans won’t forget you if a company can sell you. But four decades since Title IX and 16 years since the launch of the WNBA, organizations are still figuring out how to attract consumers by marketing female pro athletes, especially those who might not conform to traditional notions of femininity.

Some companies have found great success with female consumers by treating the women they market as athletes, equal to men in worthiness and drive. But there are several social hurdles to clear before that becomes status quo.

Two jock straps equal a sports bra?

Historically, women’s athletic clothing had been, at best, an afterthought to menswear. Women even ran marathons years before the invention of the sports bra. Ask any woman with a chest who runs: that sounds excruciating.

In 1967, a 20-year-old Kathrine Switzer braved the pain and became the first woman to enter the Boston Marathon. Partway through the run, she was attacked by the outraged race director, an aptly-named Jock Semple. Semple saw Switzer mid-race, grew furious that a girl had the gall to run it, and tried to rip her number off. Switzer’s boyfriend, who was running beside her, clotheslined Semple and told Switzer to “run like hell.” She did, finishing the race in four hours and 20 minutes.

Years later, in 1977, a grad student from the University of Vermont named Lisa Lindahl grew tired of running long distances in regular bras. She teamed up with her friend, a costume designer named Polly Smith, and Smith’s assistant Hinda Miller, to come up with something better. The women cobbled together the first sports bra by sewing together two jock straps. Ultimately, it sold as the Jogbra, and flew off the shelves. Original Jogbras have since graced display cases at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C.

The sports bra’s magic changes

Three decades after the first Frankenstein jockstrap bra, underdog sportswear company Under Armour (UA) is set on revolutionizing the world of breast support yet again.

Under Armour started out as a guy’s company  — high performance compression shorts put the company on the map, filling the gap between boxers and spandex to keep male athletes supported sans a cumbersome cup. But Phase II for Under Armour will be to grow its women’s business, its CEO has said, ultimately to a greater size than its men’s.

One of the company’s first steps in this direction comes in the form of the Armour Bra, a $58 aerodynamic breast-compressing machine in black, high-tech textiles lined with neon. To develop the product, the company monitored women wearing prototypes and sensors on their chests while running on a treadmill. A series of overhead cameras snapped pictures of the subjects while they ran. Then the innovation team pored over the motion sensor data and camera footage, as well as footage of women wearing competitors’ bras. The team tried to determine the ideal range of breast motion for women doing a high-impact exercise. You want quite a bit of support, explained Kevin Haley, Under Armour’s senior vice president of innovation, but you don’t want to completely halt all chest movement. You also want a product that looks great and makes women feel good about their bodies. Simply put, it was an intensive study of the perfect trajectory of boobs.

Under Armour’s effort could very well pay off. The overall women’s athletic footwear and apparel market is currently $30 billion in the U.S. While that is roughly 40% of the overall (men and women’s) market for athletic clothes and shoes, growth in the women’s market, in terms of units sold, is outpacing growth in the men’s, according to Eric Tracey of Janney Capital Markets.

One major growth area is something Under Armour calls “studio,” clothes for yoga, spin classes, Pilates. Lululemon has exploited this growth incredibly well, selling fashionable workout pants at near $100 a pop. Lululemon was ranked one of Fortune’s Fastest-growing companies in 2011, having increased revenue at a compound annual rate of 61% since 2004. In its 2011 report, the company said its net revenue had increased 57% from 2010 to over $700 million.

Going beyond female

There is a growing population of female athletes. What, then, is the best way to market athletic apparel to them? The secret, it seems, is not to couch it as women’s gear at all.

“The one thing that we’ve heard is that this qualifier of being a female athlete is unnecessary,” says Adrienne Lofton Shaw, Under Armour’s senior director of women’s marketing. “We listen in these focus groups with female athletes and the first thing they say is. ‘I’m not a female athlete. I’m an athlete. So stop qualifying me before you talk to me.’”

Other brands have had success with this approach as well. Take Gatorade, which released an ad in April called “Seize Every Advantage” featuring USA Women’s soccer player Abby Wambach. In it, Wambach talks about breaking her opponent. Her talent isn’t couched as feminine, and she isn’t sexualized.

Gatorade is proud of the ad, according to senior communications manager Lauren Burns. “Abby is a fierce competitor that has achieved success on all levels of play,” Burns wrote in an email to Fortune. “So, her portrayal in the ad isn’t any different from what you’d see during a game.”

Back in 1995, Nike (NKE) took a different approach, releasing a commercial called “If You Let Me Play,” showing young girls listing statistics about how their lives stand to be improved because of sports. It got tons of traction. But the all-female ad team had to fight tooth and nail to run it, according to a 2008 paper by Marquette University advertising professor Jean M. Grow called “The Gender of Branding: Early Nike Women’s Advertising a Feminist Alternative.” (Nike disputes this assertion.)

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Companies like Gatorade and Under Armour have instead targeted no-nonsense athletes, but the strategy has also worked for sports brands with a lighter message. Brooks Running Corp, for example, promotes the tagline “Run Happy.” Like Under Armour, it makes gear that takes into account physiological differences between men and women — hoodies for women have a spot for a ponytail, shirts for men have material to protect from nipple chafing — but the marketing plan is gender-agnostic.

“You need to resonate universally, regardless of sex, regardless of nationality, regardless of skill level,” says Heather Snavely, director of consumer marketing at Brooks Sports. “I think there is still a little bit of an idea out there that if you throw some pink on it, that’s still powerful for women. But that’s just not our approach, we look at them first as runners.”

Given the way the market is moving, it would be dumb not to. According to Running USA’s 2012 Women’s National Runner Survey, the number of road race finishers in 2011 almost tripled since 1990, and 55% of those runners were women. Last year, 7.6 million women finished road races, compared to 6.2 million men.

More American women are participating in sports, but they are still playing catch-up to get the same branding clout as men on the merits of their athleticism alone. And not very many of us are paying to watch professional women play a high-contact team sport such as basketball.

Making a living as a female sports brand

Cappie Pondexter makes her living, mostly, on the basketball court. In her workout clothes, sitting in the team’s Greenburgh, N.Y. practice gym, the 29-year-old point guard smiles big, talks low, and exudes the kind of quiet confidence of someone who is used to being better at the things she does than those around her. When her team, the New York Liberty, played the Seattle Storm in June, she would sometimes make her defenders look like they were caught in freeze-frame while she cut through them like butter, taking the ball to the paint to score.

A top WNBA player like Pondexter does not wield the same kind of branding power as a NBA player, at least not yet.

Cappie Pondexter

Pondexter says she learned just how hard women athletes have to work to build a marketable personal brand after she joined the league.

“When I was younger, I had the tom boy thing going on,” she says. “I don’t know if you remember Aaliyah, always in Tommy Hilfiger boxers, big baggy shorts and hats? I was like that growing up.” When she left the U.S. in the offseason to play in Europe, she says, she started paying more attention to fashion.

About 80% of WNBA players play overseas to supplement their income. Over there, she’s a celebrity, Pondexter says. There’s not such a big discrepancy in respect paid to men’s versus women’s teams. Part of that might be because there’s more money available for female players as private investors and governments heavily fund many European women’s basketball teams.

“We work for three months and the amount of money we get for three months is damn good,” Pondexter says. “But in Europe, it’s a totally different lifestyle. I mean, you’re making six figures over there.”

To further supplement her income, Pondexter started an image consulting company for young athletes called 4 Season Style Management. There’s a need for it, she thinks, because, “A lot of times, coming out of college — this is even speaking for myself and my own experience — you don’t realize the importance of your image,” Pondexter says. “And your brand is what people want to invest in, and that’s money, you know what I mean?”

It can be tough to brand a female basketball player, she says, because the sport is so aggressive. “So a lot of times, fans don’t relate feminism and that aggressiveness all in one. Me personally, I kind of take it as a challenge.”

Perhaps the player that best embodies that challenge is Candace Parker, the 6’4” star forward for the Los Angeles Sparks who came out of the University of Tennessee’s lauded women’s basketball franchise. “When things go well, they go like this,” says the NBA’s Shaev, referring to Parker’s universal appeal.

“She’s a phenomenal basketball player and she’s got this adorable daughter, and she’s got a husband and a brother who are all in the league. It’s all of that together that makes her so interesting,” says WNBA president Laurel Richie.

Recently, Parker was featured in the women’s magazine
as part of a story called, “Hey London, the Moms are Calling,” which focused on Olympian women with babies. She also had a first-person feature on a website “My Brown Baby” in May. The stories, Shaev says, “focus on her as an athlete and as a mom, and also as a multi-tasker.” This summer, ESPN Magazine ran a shot of Parker, with her hair down, a killer smile, and a basketball in hand in its annual “Bodies We Want” issue, which shows male and female Olympians, posing athletically in the buff.

True, Parker may be the full package: a beautiful woman, a mother, and an excellent player. But the question is whether sexualizing top-tier athletes or presenting them in domestic roles undercuts their athleticism.

There’s evidence that it might: A 2011 paper by a research team including Mary Jo Kane, the director of the University of Minnesota’s Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport examined how people of all different ages and genders responded to images of female athletes. The pictures shown to study participants ran the gamut from highly sexualized athletes to athletes actively participating in a sport. The researchers found that yes, some of the male participants liked the sexy photos of female athletes, but across the board, people said that the images most likely to convince them to buy tickets to an event were ones that showed the athlete in full performance pose; in other words, looking like an athlete.

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Images that show athletes in other ways may turn some people off, according to research by Elizabeth Daniels, an assistant psychology professor at Oregon State University. Pictures of sexualized female athletes tend to drum up negative comments about their skills from study participants of both genders, she found, while pictures of capable-looking athletes did not. In fact, young girls who saw capable-looking athletes tended to make positive comments about their own athleticism, whereas many would knock themselves and their bodies when they saw athletes portrayed as sex objects.

There’s nothing wrong with a female athlete having a hot body or being a mom, says Cheryl Cooky, a sociology professor and gender studies expert at Purdue University. “It wouldn’t be an issue if every now and then the media had a sexualized gag feature on women’s sports,” she claims. “The problem is, there’s such a dearth of coverage of women’s sports, that we don’t see women’s sports in the media. Then, the moment we do, they’re represented in these narrow ways which deflect attention away from their athleticism.”

The percent of mainstream media time devoted to women’s sports has actually declined between 1989 and 2009, according to a 2010 paper that Cooky co-authored called “Gender in Televised Sports.” For the study, Cooky and her co-author reviewed sports broadcasts from two Los Angeles local TV stations and also ESPN’s Sports Center, the premier U.S. destination for sports news. The study found that in 1989, the networks devoted 5% of their airtime to news about women’s sports. In 2009, that piece of the broadcast pie shrank to 1.6%. Sports Center’s coverage dropped from 2.2% in 1999 to 1.4% in 2009.

There’s no real incentive for networks to push coverage of women’s sports, unless they pick up on a clear increase in demand. Networks need to play it safe for now, says JT Hroncich, president of agency operations at Capital Media Solutions, “Everyone lives in the same economy, it’s not the best that we’ve seen. In terms of marketing dollars, people are spending them where they’re going to get a return.”

That carries over to the branding companies that need to sell ads to those television networks. Many don’t see it as their job to push gender roles, even if some consumers may have moved past the current representations of women in many mainstream ads, according to Andrew Pierce, U.S. President of brand consultancy firm Prophet.

Traditional ads have been working well enough that many big companies see no need to rock the boat either. Portrayal of women as mothers, girls next door, and certainly as sex bombs sells things, be it diapers, paper towels, or a car. These images just might not sell tickets to games.

Banking on the future

Young kids abound in the crowd at a Liberty game.

As the team closed out its 77-59 lead over the Storm, the mascot — a dog named Maddie with a Statue of Liberty crown and big, long eyelashes — hauled tirelessly around the arena. Bless whoever was inside that dog suit, ever trailed by a cloud of children. Once, in the final quarter, Maddie passed a little girl who had squirmed her way into an empty courtside seat. When she saw the mascot, she put her hands over the back of the chair, and called after the dog, “I love you, Maddie!”

Children are fundamental to WNBA president Laurel Richie’s grand plan. The idea is that by interacting with the mascot and players, kids will feel so fondly about the experience that they will become life-long followers. Richie says she is already seeing this begin to happen. While watching a game in Minneapolis, she overheard two boys sitting near her.

“They could have been on-camera commentators, giving a blow-by-blow of the game,” Richie says. “They knew all the players, they knew where they went to college, they were upset with the referees. They weren’t viewing it through a gender lens, they were watching it as ‘I’m a fan, I love this game, I love this team, I love these players.’ I look forward to who they’re going to be.”

The league needs them, says Richie. “I can’t imagine being a Candace Parker or a Tamika Catchings and have all of this talent and then not have a league to go to in the U.S. when you graduate from college. What a shame that would be.”

And yes, should the WNBA figure out how to market these athletes, more talented players will be able to extend their playing careers past college. But the power of the league goes beyond the people who make the cut, says Hilary Shaev: “Even for younger kids who may not end up with that kind of talent — at 9, 10, and 12 years old — they should be able to dream.”