Money at Play·Analysis

Eugenie Bouchard and the beauty multiplier

Canadian tennis star Eugenie Bouchard faces a challenge that many female athletes know all too well: her physical appearance can be both an asset and a curse.

Canadian tennis star's appearance can be both an asset and a curse

Eugenie Bouchard's physical appearance makes her more attractive to some corporate sponsors, but it can be a double-edged sword in terms of how some fans see her. (Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

Full disclosure: I am a Eugenie Bouchard apologist.   

At only 23, Bouchard has already seen both good and bad days on the tennis court, and highs and lows off it. Her career highlights still stem mostly from her 2014 breakout season where she made a meteoric rise up the rankings. The seasons that followed included a disappointing fall in her ranking, coaching changes, non-tennis-related headlines and injuries.

But she is still the best women's tennis player Canada has ever produced.

I can remember the exact moment I decided I was a lifer in the Genie Army. I was sitting in my car listening to Toronto sports talk radio during the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. Canadian divers Meaghan Benfeito and Roseline Filion had just won a bronze medal, but instead of congratulating them on their success, the host engaged in an extended commentary on their bodies and lamented how the event was only interesting because of the skimpy attire.

During the next segment, the host ranted about Bouchard's marketing success. He felt her corporate sponsorship (valued by Forbes at $5.5 million US for 2016) stemmed more from her looks than her talent. That she was using her sexuality to attract sponsorship her limited success didn't warrant. That, if all was fair, more successful athletes would get the same attention and money Bouchard commands.

It was as if he hadn't heard himself sexualize the female athletes in his prior segment before criticizing Bouchard for successfully profiting off the environment he was actively engaging in. 

This perfectly represents the reality for many female athletes in today's sponsorship marketplace.

If Bouchard can recapture the on-court form that made her a rising star a few years ago, she'll create many more marketing opportunities for herself. (Clive Rose/Getty Images)

An asset and a curse

I think it's fair to say a female athlete's physical appearance is both an asset and a curse. For Bouchard, her appearance helps attract corporate partners. Her penchant for taking selfies and her love of social media give her major social influence and drive up her brand value. 

"The WTA is an amazing platform for female athletes. There is no better one out there. They have created a means for women to capitalize on their power, their beauty and their strength," says Russell Reimer, the president of Manifesto Sport, a consulting and management firm. "But there is no 'famous for being famous' in sport. Your brand can't just be about beauty. You need to prove you can play. It's when you find the right brand balance that beauty gives you a real multiplier.

"I think Bouchard is missing some of the balance she first had. Her brand ambition no longer matches her results. When there is a lack of balance between an athlete's brand ambition and their results, fans quickly become critical."

This may explain why Bouchard has become so polarizing. But is it fair that, because her appearance is intertwined with her brand, that when she isn't playing well she is so openly criticized about it? Maybe. But it's also something that her male counterparts don't have to deal with. It's a uniquely female challenge. Not just balancing between brand ambition and winning, but also beauty. 

"The dominant message conveyed by the media is that what female athletes' bodies look like is more important than what their bodies can do, which absolutely diminishes their athletic achievements," says Allison Sandmeyer-Graves, CEO of the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women and Sport and Physical Activity. "This is a difficult landscape for female athletes to navigate successfully. Even more so when it's a matter of their livelihood."

So as she continues to figure it all out, I'll celebrate Genie for capitalizing on the platform she's worked so hard to gain. I won't criticize her for sharing her selfies, her lifestyle or her love of fashion.

Because when her game comes back, those factors will be her multiplier.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Deidra Dionne is Director, Business Affairs at Rogers Media. Her unique outlook on the business of sport stems from her experience as a two-time Olympian and Olympic medallist in freestyle skiing aerials, and from her education and experience as a lawyer in the sport and entertainment industry.

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