While women athletes have made strides in terms of media coverage, David Ward finds that attracting the interest of general-news outlets is the best route to further growth.Whether it's Serena and Venus Williams making waves on and off the tennis court or Annika Sorenstam creating a storm by playing in a men's PGA event, women are clearly making headlines in sports. But the relatively recent phenomenon that has catapulted certain women athletes into the limelight hasn't been an easy ride, as evidenced by setbacks such as the demise of the WUSA soccer league, the WNBA's well-publicized financial struggles, and the failure of Sports Illustrated for Women. The general consensus it that while coverage of female athletes has never been greater and any gender bias among sports reporters has long since been eliminated, things still could be better. Still much progress to make "Most editors try to do their best, but there's still a long way to go," says Michael Olguin, founder of Formula PR, whose clients include Prince tennis rackets and the Wooden Award, which next year will be given to the best male and female college basketball players. "Most sports pages still show a strong slant toward male sports. The wrap-ups of the WNBA were a third of the NBA coverage. But in most cases, the media's interest level is comparable to the [fans'] interest level." Indeed, while it's easy to point fingers, the WUSA and WNBA struggles cannot be blamed on a lack of media interest. "You always want more coverage," says Dan Courtemanche, VP of communications and business development for the WUSA until it folded in October. "But, objectively, if you saw the number of fans we were drawing and the ratings, the corresponding coverage was fair for the most part." The next true test for women's sports figures is building interest in general-news outlets. Female athletes already appear to be holding their own. Last May, WUSA had its four sets of twin players appear on Today, while Sorenstam appeared on The Tonight Show. "Pick up any magazine, and you'll see just as many women athletes getting mainstream coverage as men," notes Mark Beal, EVP with Alan Taylor Communications, whose sports roster includes USA Track & Field and AVP Pro Beach Volleyball. "It's the Williams sisters, but it's also women from other sports featured in non-sports magazines - in lifestyle and fashion features." One of the biggest hurdles facing female athletes is, ironically, getting into traditional women's titles like Ladies' Home Journal or Cosmopolitan. "They don't regularly cover sports, and they tend to cover personalities more, so it's a tougher sell," notes Mary Griswold, deputy GM for Edelman Sports, which represents the Women's Sports Foundation. But part of this challenge may simply be a matter of matching up the right female athlete with the right publication. "Everything comes down to the human-interest story and whether the athlete fits the demographic," adds Beal. "An athlete in her twenties works very well for a magazine like Shape and even for a men's magazine like FHM." The LPGA leads the charge One of the more satisfying success stories in women's sports has been the LPGA. While the women's pro golf tour is more than 50 years old, only recently has it been able to leverage the popularity of golfers like Sorenstam and teen Michelle Wie into not only increased coverage, but also greater revenues and TV ratings. Karen Durkin, the LPGA's SVP and CMO, says some of this is attributable to the good fortune of having of a mix of personalities that fascinate the public. But a lot more had to do with the realization that their pitch to the media and the public needed more than just the female angle. "Simply by being a women's version of a sport does not make you unique and will not automatically make you successful," Durkin says. "You must think beyond gender to make yourself competitive." The LPGA did that in 2002 by becoming more PR savvy. Not only did LPGA hold a mandatory two-and-a-half-day players meeting where they outlined a strategy for growing their fan base and TV ratings, but they also hired Rogers & Cowan's entertainment marketing division to raise the exposure of its players. The result was appearances in everything from Vogue to Parade, Durkin says, adding, "Now the LPGA is in demand." ----- Pitching... women's sports Pitch the personality angle to non-sports outlets. The inspirational story is a staple of nearly every mainstream title, so seek the angle that stresses the athletes' off-the-field, as well as on-the-field accomplishments. Media train your athletes and support staff. Sports reporters are looking for articulate, polite role models to present to their audience. Sex appeal sells, but make sure the athletes are comfortable with any pictorials that call attention to their looks.
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