Is the WTA's Focus on Image Good or Bad for Women's Tennis?

Merlisa Lawrence CorbettFeatured ColumnistAugust 1, 2014

Singer Ashley Roberts poses in front of the WTA's Strong is Beautiful images at the 2014 pre-Wimbledon party.
Singer Ashley Roberts poses in front of the WTA's Strong is Beautiful images at the 2014 pre-Wimbledon party.Eamonn M. McCormack/Getty Images

Strong is beautiful. That's the tag line for an ad campaign the WTA Tour adopted to promote its players. The marketing campaign features players in glamour attire, full makeup and athletic poses.

Sporty, yet sexy and physical, but flirty, the WTA walks a fine line when branding its product.

The WTA is clearly a tennis organization, established to promote its players. However, sometimes how those players are promoted makes the WTA seem more like a talent agency, grooming spokesmodels to pitch various products.

It's working. Female tennis players are the most recognizable women in sports. The WTA is the only professional women's league in which players earn anything close to what their male counterparts make.

When the Strong is Beautiful campaign launched two years ago, Stacey Allaster, chairman and CEO of the WTA, spoke about how the goal was to make players more accessible to fans. 

We want to develop a closer relationship with our fans and attract a new generation of fans to women's tennis, and the Strong is Beautiful campaign is one way to get it done...The unique combination of athleticism, strength and determination on the court and success, interests and inner beauty off the court is what makes women's tennis so attractive to millions around the world.

Women's-rights activists might shudder at the thought of professional female athletes promoting themselves as fashionistas and sex symbols. After all, from the boardroom to the classroom, these activists have fought for women to be taken seriously. 

That is why the WTA's marketing strategy is brilliant. The WTA found a way to market the sport and promote women as individuals. They have created superstars with significant wealth. 

Perhaps this balancing act of promoting the sport—wink wink—while pitching beauty queens is the reason the WTA continues to grow as other women's leagues struggle.

Quick, name an LPGA star other than Michelle Wie? Who won the last two WNBA titles? Who was the league's MVP?

Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, Venus Williams and arguably Caroline Wozniacki are household names. They transcend tennis. Their fashion choices and who they are dating makes news on TMZ. 

Earlier this year, Golf Digest put Paulina Gretzky on the cover. Female golfers were outraged because she's not even a professional golfer. She just dates one.

The uproar focused on whether it was fair to shun professional female golfers. Few questioned, at least not publicly, why LPGA players weren't considered marketable enough to even sell golf magazines.

Meanwhile, female tennis stars have graced the covers of Vogue, ESPN The Magazine, Essence, Time, Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, Glamour, Esquire, GQ, Fitness, InStyle, Shape and many other non-tennis-related magazines.   

Petra Kvitova gets hair and makeup done at WTA event.
Petra Kvitova gets hair and makeup done at WTA event.Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

Along with millions in prize money, WTA players cash in on endorsements. Even players ranked outside the Top Five make more money off the court than most professional female athletes make playing their sport.   

Brittney Griner, one of the most exciting players in the WNBA and the No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 WNBA draft, was paid $49,440 last year. She supplements her WNBA salary by playing in China where she earns $600,000. Meanwhile, Andrew Wiggins, the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, just signed with the Cleveland Cavaliers for $5.5 million. 

The WTA offers players a platform to promote themselves, as well as their game. After Sharapova won the French Open, the WTA posted an article about her becoming only the fourth female player to reach one million Twitter followers. She joined Williams (4.2 million), Sania Mirza (1.8 million) and Venus Williams (1.1 million). 

The pre-Wimbledon party has turned into a red-carpet affair that attracts celebrities. The year-end championships include fashion photo shoots and makeovers for players. 

The WTA's top players pose before the start of the 2013 year-end championships.
The WTA's top players pose before the start of the 2013 year-end championships.Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

No matter how many red-carpet events Sharapova or Serena Williams attend, they maintain their status as world-class athletes. Whether Sharapova is promoting candy or Serena Williams is pitching nail polish, people consider them strong and powerful players. 

Strong is profitable. According to Forbes magazine, four of the five richest female athletes are tennis players. Danica Patrick, a woman who competes head-to-head with men, comes in at No. 5. 

The WTA seems to recognize that women, even athletes, are inherently different from men. They can devote as much time and energy to training and still want to look lovely when they take the court. 

While those in politics, academia and corporate America debate equal rights, the WTA has achieved equal pay in Grand Slams. They have done this despite playing best of three instead of best of five sets like the men.

Walking that fine line serves the WTA, an organization that understands that equality doesn't necessarily mean being the same.