Beyond competitive earnings, female athletes have the potential to line their pockets with monies earned from endorsements, sponsorships, speaking engagements and special appearances. For example, Forbes.com reported that in 2012, tennis star Maria Sharapova pulled in $5.9 million in on-court winnings and another $22 million off of the court. Yes, you read that correct, Sharapova’s off-court earnings were more than triple her on-court earnings. Sharapova, an obviously brilliant business woman, has deals with the likes of Cole Haan, Evian, Nike, Samsung, and Tag Heuer While these figures may motivate you to pick up a tennis racket, or put one in your daughter’s hand, my advice would be to proceed with caution. In reality, the vast majority of professional female athletes will never, ever enjoy such off-court proceeds. In fact, it’s not uncommon for many female athletes to have no additional income from endorsements. But if proceed you must, it might be good to know what it takes to become one of the few whose athletic prowess brings fame and wealth.
Female athletes need media attention in order to garner the attention of potential endorsers and sponsors. They need to become media darlings. Wiktionary defines a media darling as “a celebrity who is especially popular and who receives frequent and very favorable attention in the news media.” For an athlete, becoming a media darling can lead to very comfortable lifestyle; insulating her financial stability from losing seasons, injuries, and retirement. The media darling status can open doors for her to expand her brand from sports into areas of fashion, business, Hollywood and everything in between. So just how does one become a media darling? I think tthere are several ingredients needed in an athlete’s career for her to become a media darling.
Winning is important. The point of sport is to prove someone on a particular day is better than someone else. The heart of sport is winning, triumph, and conquer. Since winning is so important it’s safe to say that the media darling is a winner. The fans, teams, and companies want to be aligned with a winner, so the first ingredient for an athlete to gain the status of media darling is dominance.
Past and current darlings like Florence Griffith-Joyner, Sheryl Swoops, Mia Hamm, Serena Williams, and Hope Solo; were/are all winners. These women initially gained notoriety because of their ability to win titles, gold medals, MVPs—you name it, and they won it. With dominance came media attention and the media attention opened doors for making income outside of their respective sports. It is important to note that there is no set level of winning that the media requires of its athletes. Sure gold medals, MVPs and championships are nice, but they aren’t necessary to catapult the female athlete to “darling-dom.” Remember Anna Kournikova? She won enough to reach number 8 in the world but never actually won a WTA title. Despite this minor blemish on her professional resume, Kournikova garnered tons of attention and very lucrative endorsement deals that have allowed her to remain relevant years after retirement.
Unfortunately, winning doesn’t necessarily guarantee the fame and fortune. Consider Claressa Shields. Shields is the 17-year-old boxing phenom who shocked the world by winning the gold medal in boxing in the 2012 Olympics. She was the only American boxer to medal in those Olympics. Unfortunately, the response of the American media was well short of the expected response. There has been little media coverage, small celebrations, and few endorsements. This proves it takes more than a winning record for an athlete to become a medal darling.
Shields’ story leads me to another key ingredient in the media darling formula—sport popularity. Many, I think correctly, have commented that one reason that Shields has not received the vast media coverage and perks that go hand and hand with an Olympic gold medal is that she doesn’t participate in a very popular sport. Women’s boxing, which has never garnered massive attention, has been on the steady decline in the US. Ask most Americans to name one female boxer and they’d probably say Laila Ali, and her last fight was in 2007.
If there isn’t a huge market for an athlete’s sport then it is unlikely that the media will latch on to her. Most of the country’s most well known female athletes play one of three sports—tennis, soccer, basketball. During Olympic seasons and special events sports like track and field, swimming, gymnastics, volleyball, golf, skiing and skating get more coverage; but for the most part, the media tends to lend its coverage of female athletes to very few sports. While sexism may lend its hand to some of the lackluster response to women in sports, I think another issue lies with America’s love for football, basketball, and baseball. America has and probably will continue to have its favorite sports, so female athletes must prepare to make their sport popular.
A vain, touchy subject, but one that should be mentioned when discussing media darlings, is appearance. Being perceived as beautiful can have a profound affect on an athlete’s career. Anyone who has followed women’s tennis will recall how the early days of media coverage in the careers of Anna Kournikova and Maria Sharapova contained just as much commentary about the ladies’ tennis skills as about their physical beauty. Those blessed with a beautiful face can often parlay their beauty into a lucrative bargaining tool.
One issue with using appearance as a marketing chip is that beauty is highly subjective and often interpreted based on one’s cultural, social, political backgrounds. Large media outlets like News Corporation, NBC, CBS, Disney and ABC, run by mostly white, heterosexual, male management, have traditionally defined and promoted beauty from a very limited point of view; leaving those who do not fit the mold out of the running for beauty endorsements. Athletes who do not fit the mold may have to change the definition of beauty before they can profit from their looks. It’s good to note, however, that as technology makes the world a smaller place, the standards of beauty are becoming more diverse; making room for female athletes of different ethnicities and body types to receive recognition for their looks and athleticism.
Personality, that’s the next component in the media darling mix. Plainly speaking the media chooses to endorse people who they like. For females, that usually means that they flock to the athlete who embraces the attention of the camera and lets their friendly, funny, personality shine. I don’t quite recall there being famous female versions of Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson or Charles Barkley; you know, guys who aren’t (weren’t) so squeaky clean but manage(d) to rake in media coverage and endorsements. So for now, I think it’s safe to say that a female media darling keeps her temper tantrums and trash talking to a minimum.
So What’s a Girl to Do?
While my ingredients for reaching media darling status may seem to be hard and fast, they are anything but. As with any other recipe, the ingredients can always be tweaked. If you’re one your way to becoming a media darling, feel free to spice things up. Maybe add a good background store about how a challenging upbringing drove you to success. Or add a double dose of the personality by adding humanitarian to your resume. The point is, every media darling is unique, and while there seems to be some key ingredients, nothing’s to say that your mix won’t turn out just as good as Serena’s. So if you’ve got aspirations of being a rich and famous athlete, just know that the road ahead is long and built on DNA, hard work, intelligence and fate; so be you, be fierce and good luck!