Women's pro tennis is using a time-honored marketing weapon to revive interest in the once-popular sport among fans and corporate sponsors: sex appeal.
On the court, stars such as Russian teen Anna Kournikova are shedding traditional tennis whites for revealing two-piece Lycra outfits. And off the court, top female tennis players are posing for magazine fashion spreads, making the TV talk show circuit and working their way into motion pictures, prodded by advisors convinced that glamour sells.
Marketers hope the women's tour, with more personable stars than the somewhat dull men's circuit, will lift the fortunes of the entire sport. But some worry that women's tennis is in danger of reducing its athletes to starlets known more for their looks than their game. Top agents and marketers argue, however, that when it comes to attracting fans and sponsors, a powerful serve and a strong backhand aren't enough.
"We've chosen to market our players this way because this is what Madison Avenue wants," said Susan Marenoff, head of marketing for the Women's Tennis Assn.
Indeed, women's tennis isn't the only sport in search of sponsors to hype charm and looks. The governing body of women's beach volleyball recently told its players to wear bikinis. And the Women's National Basketball Assn. touts the appeal of such athletes as Lisa Leslie, a Los Angeles Sparks forward and model.
Corporate marketers say that when it comes to women's tennis, winning isn't the only thing. They say they are looking for athletes who project an image that enhances their brands.
"The women on the tour, as a whole, are presenting themselves with the sporty, sexy image we want for our company," said Jennie Craig, publicity director for footwear maker Adidas.
In its heyday, nearly 20 years ago, tennis annually ranked among the nation's 10 most popular sports. Engaging players such as Billie Jean King and John McEnroe attracted hordes of fans, and tennis courts cropped up everywhere.
Today, youngsters are much more likely to pick up a skateboard than a tennis racket. According to the latest figures from Sporting Goods Manufacturers' Assn., tennis ranks 22nd among participation sports and athletic activities. Corporate sponsorship of professional tennis--a prime indicator of success in the 1990s--has grown, but failed to keep pace with sports such as golf.
Observers say that the women's circuit, with more dramatic play and personable athletes than the men's tour, stands the best chance of lifting the fortunes of the sport.
"From a business perspective, it's the women's tour, in the U.S. at least, that is creating the buzz," said USC sports marketing professor David Carter.
So far, results have been spotty. While TWA, Waterford Crystal and Puma have signed on as secondary sponsors in the last year, the tour is searching for a title sponsor to replace Canadian software maker Corel, which withdrew when its contract expired in December.
The WTA's 1998 TV ratings, a gauge of the sport's overall health and the key to attracting sponsors' dollars, ranked on par with the seniors' golf tour, and equipment sales sunk to their lowest point of the 1990s in 1998.
"The jury's out right now," said Keith Bruce, vice president of sports marketing in the San Francisco office of advertising agency Foote, Cone & Belding. "But it seems to me that the WTA has positioned itself for a bright future."
To be sure, there is reason to believe the WTA's strategy can work. Sales of tennis equipment rose between 1990 and 1992, when the charismatic men's star Andre Agassi briefly ignited a burst of renewed interest in the sport.
The WTA hopes its repackaged stars will strike a chord with teenage girls, a free-spending group captivated by fashion and celebrities and coveted by marketers.
"It's pretty easy to see that if [girls] see an outfit worn by a Martina [Hingis], Venus [Williams] or one of our other players, and they go needle their moms, telling them they want to buy one because that's what's hip and cool, chances are the moms will end up heading off to the store," said WTA marketing chief Marenoff.
In launching its image make-over a year ago, the WTA first targeted women's magazines. No. 1 ranked Hingis and Compton-raised sisters Venus and Serena Williams made the rounds in New York, meeting with editors at Vogue and other high-profile publications.
The result: The Williams sisters, draped in American flags, posed in last May's issue of Vogue. Hingis, wearing a shimmery white outfit, appeared on the cover of GQ last June. And People magazine named Kournikova one of the 50 most beautiful people in the world in 1998.
"We actually courted these magazines and found out what they wanted," says WTA public relations director Joe Favorito.
Next, the WTA arranged for its players to appear on late-night talk shows. Conscious of its image, the WTA made Hingis choose from four pre-selected outfits for her appearance on "The Tonight Show" in March of last year.