Demise of Sports Illustrated Women raises questions

Feminists are flummoxed: Is the demise of Sports Illustrated Women a reason to boo or cheer?

The 2-year-old publication will fold after the December issue, according to an announcement late last week from its parent company, AOL Time Warner.

Known for covers that would make a Maxim reader drool, Sports Illustrated Women, with a circulation of 400,000, is a perfect metaphor for the current debate over the marketing of female athletes as sex objects:

Shouldn't women, like men, be treated as professionals rather than pinups? No Sports Illustrated cover, for instance, would feature a male athlete in a skimpy outfit with a pouty, come-hither expression, a staple of Sports Illustrated Women. Male athletes are allowed to look like the dignified champions they are rather than Hooters employees.

And shouldn't female athletes fight to be covered in Sports Illustrated itself rather than being shunted aside into what could be construed as a women's auxiliary?

"The camera angles enhance breasts and curves and abdomens and butts," said Margaret Sullivan, a Columbia College Chicago professor who teaches courses in sports marketing. "I was really hoping that the new focus on professional women would heal some of that, but it hasn't happened."

Pam Creedon, a journalism professor at the University of Iowa and a subscriber to Sports Illustrated Women, said, "They've done some cheesy things to sell the magazine. No doubt."

Erin McCarthy, a history lecturer at Columbia, added that despite the strides female athletes have made in recent years, "There's still the tendency to project women as sex objects."

And male athletes? "Baseball cards don't put those guys in Speedos," said McCarthy, who teaches a course on the history of sports. "The expectation is so different, the rules are different."

While a publication such as Sports Illustrated Women seemed like an advance, in some ways it represented a throwback to the days when a female competitor's only value was her appearance.

Yet what doomed Sports Illustrated Women wasn't politics but dollars, said industry analysts. In shaky economic times, AOL Time Warner executives weren't willing to support a money-losing magazine (its circulation had actually increased from about 300,000 in 2000).

The publication "needed a significant investment to reach its potential," Time Chief Executive Ann Moore said in a prepared statement, an investment she didn't want to make. Earlier this month, the company also pulled the plug on Mutual Funds magazine, which did not feature scantily clad money managers.

But gender politics did play some role in Sports Illustrated Women's fate. When the magazine began, it covered female athletes in much the same way that Sports Illustrated covers male athletes: as professionals worthy of profiles. Of late, however, the magazine has become almost indistinguishable from health and fitness how-to magazines such as Self and Shape.

That shift left the magazine adrift, said Samir Husni, a journalism professor at the University of Mississippi.

"They had a complete lack of focus," Husni said. "Their unique selling feature disappeared hard and fast."

A fuzzy identity made the magazine's voluptuous-looking cover models problematic, Husni added. "People don't complain when they see those covers on Shape. But this sent a mixed signal. Once you lose your uniqueness, there's no hope."

Female athletes have a culture-induced challenge, McCarthy pointed out: "Sports is equated with masculinity." The images of women competitors, then, often are aimed at proving that athletic ability can co-exist with femininity.

Developing an audience for a women's sports magazine is difficult, said Creedon, who studies media images of female athletes. "Generally, women don't follow sports programs once they graduate from an institution."

Several publishers have tried to create a winning formula, including Women's Sports and Fitness, a Conde Nast publication that went under in 2000 after three years.

One that just may make it is Women's Basketball, a monthly magazine with a circulation of approximately 20,000 that launched three years ago in Worcester, Mass. Lois Elfman, editor in chief, said the magazine has grown steadily and now makes money for its parent company, Ashton International Media and all without making its covers look like Playboy.

"I do capture my women cover subjects as people, not in their uniforms. If I say to (WNBA star) Lisa Leslie, 'Put on a push-up bra and a thong,' that's wrong. She wouldn't go out that way. But a lovely evening gown? She loves that. My line is, 'How do these women really look?' They're in their own clothes they're just not sweating," Elfman said.

Golf for Women is, like Women's Basketball, an example of a successful women's sports publication. It began in 1988, and from then until today its circulation has grown from 200,000 to 420,000.

Female readers may approach sports differently than do men, she added.

"Women don't seem to be general sports fans the way men are." That was bad news for Sports Illustrated Women, which was "all over the place," but good news for a focused publication such as Women's Basketball, Elfman said. "They tried to reach many, many people. Ours is all about women's basketball."

Still, women have a long way to go before they reach equality in terms of "funding or coverage," said Ann Hetzel Gunkel, director of Columbia's women and gender studies program.

"It's a dangerous time in many ways," Gunkel said. "The culture feels as if it's an old story. People have a 'Get over it' attitude, a sense that women are equal with men."

She pointed to recent attempts to repeal Title IX, the federal mandate forcing public schools to expand athletic opportunities for women. The argument that women should be covered by Sports Illustrated rather than be ghettoized in their own publications is premature, Gunkel added.

"While it's a laudable goal to integrate coverage of women into general sports coverage, I don't think there's anything resembling equal coverage now. There's still a significant role to play by publications that call attention specifically to women and their achievements in sports.

"Young women, especially, need to see those achievements called out."

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