Going for gold!

Women's sports magazines duel over a hot and growing target demographic.


Inda Schaenen
November 26, 1997 1:00AM (UTC)

Finally we have the reason women can't break the glass ceiling and have it all: They're too busy reading Sports Illustrated! According to SI's director of publicity, Robin Shallow, the magazine's 3 million subscribers include 450,000 women, an increase of 15 percent over the last five years. Those who aren't reading SI are likely to be shooting hoops down the street or swimming loops around Manhattan. Forty-one million females -- including 12 million women and 30 million school-age and college girls -- regularly play sports, says Lucy S. Danziger, editor in chief of Condi Nast's recently launched Sports for Women.

If these numbers shock you, you probably don't know who Mia Hamm is, and your fast-twitch muscle fibers are probably in lousy shape, assuming you even know where (or what) they are. Also, you probably didn't know that NBC's coverage of the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta was meant to draw in female viewers ("Honey, not tonight; Marie-Jose Perec is going for gold in the 200 meters"). Certainly, though, the numbers are very real to those running the show at Sports Illustrated's WomenSport, Condi Nast's Sports for Women and the other new mags aimed at the growing, affluent, highly advertising-attractive market of female sports fans.

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Since 1972, when the passage of Title IX prohibited federally funded institutions from discriminating on the basis of sex, girls' sports (particularly soccer and basketball) have attracted increasing numbers of participants. When you add these athletes to the armchair groupies who have evidently been following men's basketball, football, baseball and hockey in the pages of Sports Illustrated, you too might be tempted to launch a women's sports magazine.

To judge from the fast-paced, devil-take-the-hindmost tone of boundless possibility, eternal energy and celebratory playfulness that prevails in these mags, women are doing all kinds of things that seem completely crazy and probably are. But are kickboxing, paragliding and snowboarding any crazier than secretly slicing yourself with a razor blade or throwing up after a big dinner? Women, it seems, have always done nutty things: Intense physical play is simply a healthier kind of craziness than the self-destructive habits inflicted upon women by a mysogynist culture and economy.

Or is it? Some readers of these magazines might conclude that the sportiest of women are simply burying the life-denying impulses even deeper. Kristen Ulmer, featured in Sports for Women's November issue, was nearly swept off the Grand Tetons in a 100-mile-an-hour avalanche during a ski run. Billed in the profile as an "adrenaline junkie," Ulmer also likes to soar in the sky harnessed to a parachute, crawl up cliffs and chat with obscene callers. She takes on challenges, never gives up and fears only tedium. She's happy, fulfilled and financially independent. All seems rosy -- until the very end of the profile, where Kristen muses on the idea of life after sport: "At some point my body isn't going to work as well," she says, "and I'm going to have to find something ... I'm really afraid of waking up one morning with a spongy butt. No way I can retire. I'd be lost, confused. I wouldn't know who I was."

Could it really be that part of what motivates Ulmer to scale craggy peaks and routinely endanger her life is the vision of herself with a spongy butt? Abhorrence of the mature female form is bad enough; worse is Ulmer's confession that without sports she would be lost to herself, overboard and flailing in the doldrums of adulthood, her identity shrunk to a pip.

Call Ulmer the exception and consider long-distance runner Ann Trason, an older and more experienced athlete featured in WomenSport's Fall 1997 issue. The fawning, rhetorically overblown profile makes for difficult reading, but maybe this is a fitting form for a subject who runs 18-hour races. Slogging through the pain is what long-distance running (and reading) is all about.

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Don't dismiss Trason as a "madwoman," writes Kenny Moore, assuring readers Trason is, in fact, "as sane as a gloriously obsessed creature can be." To appreciate this, he crows, you have to know about distance. "Distance burns through sentiment, through aesthetics. Distance burns through being healthy, pretty, admired, ridiculed or moved by anyone else's example. Distance burns through betrayals, loves and hates. Distance burns until a runner is revealed in naked, raw relief. Distance humbles, but only, paradoxically, through a runner's adamantine self-control." If only distance could burn through purple prose.

Trason's own body was consumed by distance: One race burned through the musculature of her left leg, leaving her running along with 90 percent of her hamstring detached from the head of the bone. Naturally, she not only finished the race, but under local anesthesia endured the surgery to investigate the limb and reattach the muscle, the better to converse with her surgeon during the operation.

In a sidebar entitled "Tough Mothers," WomenSport offers a gestational timeline upon which are placed, month by month, nine women who have "competed and frequently excelled" in various sports during their pregnancies. Sure, pregnancy is normally a healthy state of the body. Moderate exercise can only make the average, uneventfully pregnant person feel good. But what is the average pregnant reader to think of jockey Mary Bacon, who rode a race during her eighth month? Publicly we cheer her gusto ("See what women can do given a chance"); in private we wonder what kind of desires she's drawing on that would set her agallop at that particular moment in her life. A reader might well wonder if these are the right barriers to be crashing though.

In spite of the shared terrain, the sports magazines display individual personalities. Sports for Women editor Danziger claims to focus her magazine "on helping women lead an active life, not on quick life fixes," and a fair number of articles present real athletes performing real sports. Other features give tips on performance. Columnist Martina Navratilova does her level-headed, straight-from-the-heart best to bestow a politically correct athlete's credentials and blessings upon the enterprise. But Condé Nast's layout is cluttered, squeezing editorial between and beside ads for liquor, cars, perfume, makeup, jeans and sports gear. Readers can look here for advice on what kind of jewelry looks best on a surfer's sandy hand and which sports will improve specific parts of the body. Here also is a fashion spread on high school girls in their team uniforms. Elsewhere is a touch of erotica: a beach girl's perfect butt, her slightly sandy bikini bottom creeping upwards. There's even a lighthearted diary of a writer in search of Mr. (Wealthy) Right at a golf tournament. Good intentions notwithstanding, Sports for Women is compromised.

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Sports Illustrated's WomenSport works well as a fan's resource and an overall introduction to the variety and scope of women's sports today. The profile of U.S. women's soccer star Mia Hamm, Richard Hoffer's colorful look at women's boxing and Johnette Howard's profile of a double amputee female track star (she has no legs from the knees down) make for happy and uplifting sports niche reading. WomenSport can also tell the reader/sportswoman where to get a nifty bicycle saddle with a cutaway section that will alleviate the genital pressure many female bikers experience on saddles designed for men.

But WomenSport, edging as it does toward a full appreciation of what women do, seems a little too eager to present the feminine side of its women athletes. We're told that runner Marie-Jose Perec has "breathtaking physical beauty; [and] the potential to mix crude, passionate athleticism and femininity even more stunningly than she already has ..." We're shown the amputee track star passionately embracing her boyfriend and told that she loves to model fashion. Even Christy Martin, the sensational female boxer, photographed mid-bout with blood all over her clothes and face, must be described (by her husband, of course) as "100 percent female: She wears high heels, fingernail polish, everything." It's one thing to quote a dopey guy who assumes that high heels plus fingernail polish equals femininity; it's another to go the extra mile to ensure that readers understand Christy's not too butch. Time will tell whether WomenSport, which floated the first two issues in order to test the magazine's market viability, will remain in the fray.

About 100 pages slimmer and many times more readable than their ad-fat sister publications, Women's Sports and Fitness and Women's Cycling are sober alternatives. The writers and editors here are almost universally female and dedicated participants in the activities they cover. The letters-to-the-editor are signed by mothers pulling tots behind bikes and women who read the magazine while stepping on the Stairmaster at the gym. These are magazines we can show the 30 million girl athletes without embarrassment.

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It's not hard to locate the politics in women's sports. As with any kind of politics, you have only to follow the dollars. Spend money on girls' and women's sports programs and the teams will blossom. Convince advertisers and corporate underwriters you've got readers and fans who will pay to watch the sports and, presto, a magazine and a national league is born.

Meanwhile, it is thrilling to see muscle-bound females put their bodies through a daredevilish array of activities hitherto practiced by men. Women auto racers and female chess grandmasters make good reading. But consider how these magnificent feats and their cultivation relate to the destiny of women and girls in the world at large. Hasn't it been the spirit of unchecked competition that got us into this mess in the first place? Isn't there some connection between win-lose games and corporate rapacity?

Not that our farseeing athletic friends don't imagine progressive social consequence might attach to their feats. "There are lots of problems
in Algeria, material problems, political problems ... I am going to make a lot of changes," says champion Algerian runner Hassiba Boulmerka in Women's Sports and Fitness. Record-breaking American auto racer Lyn St. James speaks to the same goal in the same magazine: "You have to live by the rules. You have to play by the rules. You have to win by the rules. Then, when you win enough, you can begin to change the rules." It's a nice idea, but it would be even nicer to think that changing the rules doesn't require playing the game.

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Inda Schaenen

Inda Schaenen has it all. Except Radu.

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