It’s no secret that millennials take social media very seriously. But nowadays professional athletes have a duty of care in the way they promote themselves via social media.
Athletes use platforms such as Instagram or Facebook to boost their image and share their stories, making them more attractive to brands, sponsors and viewers; not to mention bringing in extra dollars and credibility into the world of athletics along the way. Some athletes choose to do this with humility while others choose to use their physical appearance to attract an audience, rather than their athletic ability.
At the recent Drug Aware Margaret River Pro, Hawaiian John Florence won a prize of USD$100,000. This came after Sally Fitzgibbons earned her 1st place winnings of USD$60,000 the day before. Both athletes surfed the same break, within the same conditions, at the same time. The discrepancies do not stop there. According to the most current Forbes The World’s Highest-Paid Athletes List the top 39 paid athletes in the world, are ALL men. With Serena Williams being the only female athlete in the top 87 of the list, coming in at #40.
Does this infuriate yourself, like it does the women reading this discovery? This begs the question: Why are female athletes less valued then their male counterparts? In almost every professional sport. Sexualisation, plays a big part.
Some women may feel the pressure because they are not receiving equal pay to men in the same sport. This can result in no longer viewing athletic achievement as a priority and distorts the perception of the female athlete, who then may choose then to use their appearance to gain social media presence and become more influential. This in turn allows them to earn more in endorsements and sponsorships, than relying on their performance in their chosen field.
Comparing social media statistics between the current #1 and 5-time world champion Stephanie Gilmore’s 466K Instagram followers, Alana Blanchard’s impressive 1.8 million followers, and Ellie Jean Coffee’s strong 784k followers. Why does Blanchard and Coffee’s popularity far exceed Gilmore’s? Maybe because the two are notorious for their faces seen in every Rip Curl or Billabong campaign (respectively) as well as their Instagram filled with selfies in glamorous, tropical locations. Yet neither compete on the WSL tour, placing a long way past 100th in the rankings, or are nearly as athletically gifted as Gilmore. A quick scroll through their feeds and you’ll notice a big difference, in comparing the current world champion, who’s feed showcases videos of her recent tubes and training sessions, the others choose to showcase the latest bikinis, captured at a strategic angle.
“Some girls are definitely self-sexualizing, they know what the market is and what gets the best response. In the culture of surfing, sex sells. They’re making a lot of money out of it.” Scott Atheron, Surf Coach, Manly Surf School.
This doesn’t apply to surfing alone. The current fastest women in the world, is Shelly-Anne Fraser-Pryce of Jamaica. After winning an Olympic Games in 2012 and being the current reigning world 100m champion, you think she would be a household name? With only 211k Instagram followers to her name, the world’s fastest female was paid US$60,000 for her world title win in 2015. In comparison to Mr Usain Bolt, undoubtedly the world most successful sprinter and known to almost all people who own a television, around the world. He attains 6.7Million Instagram followers, is number 32 on Forbes Highest-Paid Athletes list and for the same race, at the same championships was paid US -$120,000 for his 2015 World Title, in comparison to Shelly-Ann’s $60K.
This necessity for over exposure, it seems, is growing the gap for women in sport. Tim Wigmore, of NewStatemen Sport, has this to say about the matter. ‘’The roots of this discrepancy lie in the birth of modern sport, 150 years ago. Women’s treatment in sport has always been a manifestation of wider gender inequality and, as sports evolved and professionalised, became self-perpetuating. The huge funding disparity between male and female sport means that women have had fewer opportunities to play sport, have suffered from inadequate coaching and facilities compared with those enjoyed by men, and have been paid meagre sums, even for playing international sport. This has damaged the quality of sport.’’
We are left with the issue , in this social media, millennial world, if women want to cover that gap, they must be perceived, first and foremost, as athletes and not as Instagram models. If sexuality is the main qualifier for popularity in women’s professional sport, then women’s sport will not be seen for what it is; a sport, rather than a glorified modelling industry.