08.27.134:45 AM ET

Female Athletes’ Madison Avenue Makeovers

Do female athletes face sexploitation from marketers? Or do women in sports simply want to draw eyes to their abilities? ESPN’s documentary ‘Branded’ explores the complicated relationship.

The average annual salary for a professional female soccer player is just $25,000. No women appeared on the Sports Illustrated highest-earning American athletes list in 2013. And ESPN’s SportsCenter devoted just 1.4 percent of its time to women’s sports, according to a study.

The aforementioned stats are from Branded, the last film to air in ESPN’s Nine for IX documentary series, which explores the big business of commercializing female athletes.

So how do many female athletes supplement their paltry incomes? By being marketable—and that usually boils down to simply looking hot.

“You look at a male athlete, and they can make their entire living based off their skill,” soccer Olympian Hope Solo says in the film. “For a female athlete, we make most of our money on the side.”

What makes a female athlete different from celebrities like Kim Kardashian, Paris Hilton, or even Snooki? Obviously, female athletes have actual skills and have spent years honing their craft. But at the same time, as the film alludes to, some of these women aren’t all that different from each other. Sports and entertainment are completely intertwined, sports agent Jill Smoller says—and attractive female athletes need to make use of their, ahem, assets in order to extend their brand or even earn a livable wage.

“In our society, what makes a man valuable? Power, money, influence. What makes a woman valuable? Her currency is how attractive she is—I mean, that’s really that bottom line,” sports marketer Leonard Armato says in the film.

We live in an age where “sports” such as Legends Football League (formerly known as the Lingerie Football League), the Bikini Basketball Association, and the Lingerie Basketball League exist—with their players’ sole purpose to be eye candy parading around in short shorts, bras, garters, and shoulder pads.

This is a far cry from when the athlete-endorsement period started in the mid-1970s. Tennis player Chris Evert, featured in the film, is credited as the first female athlete who made Madison Avenue turn its head for a good look. She was a tall, blonde, all-American, squeaky-clean dream for marketers. She became the first person to cross the million-dollar mark in endorsements, she says.

After Evert, gymnast Mary Lou Retton became “America’s sweetheart” when she leaped into public view at the 1984 Olympics. The innocent 16-year-old with a winning smile became the first woman on a Wheaties cereal box, complete with a commercial jingle singing, “’Cause she’s eating what the big boys eat.” Even though she was able to retire at age 17 and has a net worth of $5.8 million, she says she “lost her voice for a long time,” because agents basically told her to keep her mouth shut and just smile.

Female athletes regained their voices a bit in the ’90s, an explosive time for women’s sports. Girls signed up in record numbers for school team sports, especially soccer. This was buoyed by the United States’ nail-biting victory in the 1999 Women’s World Cup, the highest-attended women’s sports event in history. But despite the exciting win, the most iconic and debated image from that game remains when player Brandi Chastain ripped off her jersey to expose her black sports bra after kicking the winning penalty shot.

Chastain was offered hundreds of thousands of dollars for that bra, but turned it down because she thought it’d send the wrong message, according to ESPN business reporter Darren Rovell. “Hundreds of thousands of dollars—she didn’t make that in the history of her professional soccer career,” he says.

No one can argue that women’s sports has grown in leaps and bounds, but at what cost? To gain attention for their abilities, female athletes are forced to constantly sell themselves.

“The participation has gone through the roof. But despite Title IX, women have really gained very little at the professional-sports level over time,” Armato says.

Anna Kournikova is one athlete who was groomed from a very early age to be a superstar. Her tennis chops plus her model looks guaranteed marketers—and many men—to drool over her, even if she kept losing big events. At one point she reportedly had $11 million worth of endorsements. In 2001 a worldwide computer virus named after her, promising the viewer a photo of her in return for a download, caused networks to jam up around the globe.

Racer Danica Patrick has also been accused of capitalizing on her looks to gain sponsorship deals. By appearing in some smoky commercials, she took GoDaddy.com—arguably one of the most unsexy businesses (a Web domain registry)—and made it (and herself) a household name. Patrick created her own buzz, in order to highlight her racing career, she says.

“A woman athlete needs to extend their brand. They need to move without the ball. Create relevance, create news, create people talking about you when you’re not playing the sport,” Rovell says.

According to the film, the WNBA goes against that in many ways.

But our culture penalizes the WNBA for being different. The players are portrayed as rough, powerful, and tattooed. Some people, including Armato, say that the league needs to change the way it plays the game if it wants to succeed for the long haul. “It doesn’t fit squarely within the way our society wants to view women,” Armato says.

Average TV viewership for the 2012 WNBA Finals was a bit more than 400,000 per game, according to the film. For the NBA, ratings reached about 16 million per game.

“At the end of the day, it’s a business ... People have to realize we’re selling something. We’re selling our sport,” three-time WNBA MVP Lisa Leslie says. “And how we look is just as important as how we play. And is that fair?”

The viewer’s gut reaction to that question is, “No way!” But take a good look around—amid the banners, billboards, commercials, clothing, and nude magazine issues parading as art—and you’ll realize that you and the athletes themselves are outnumbered.

Branded airs at 8 p.m. tonight on ESPN.