RIO DE JANEIRO — They don’t make as much money as their counterparts of the opposite sex. They don’t receive as much TV airtime or media coverage. They don’t attract as many fans to arenas or as many followers on social media.
This sounds like a typical gender inequality story in American sports except for one thing: In gymnastics, the men are less popular than the women.
The chasm has only widened at the Rio Olympics as the U.S. women have dominated and the U.S. men have faltered. Whereas the American women waltzed to victory in the team competition and appear poised to capture two more medals in the all-around Thursday, their male counterparts finished a distant fifth as a team and didn’t sniff the medal stand in Wednesday’s all-around.
“It’s absolutely frustrating that it’s not equal, but I think it’s about winning,” said U.S. Olympian Chris Brooks. “The women have a wonderful track record of producing champions and medals over and over again. Companies want to be involved with champions and medal winners. If we’re going to complain about it, we also have to do better.”
While more success on an Olympic stage would certainly narrow the popularity gap for the American men, sports marketers remain unconvinced it would close altogether. They’re skeptical a gold medal-winning men’s gymnast could ever attract the same caliber sponsorships or endorsements past female champions have.
By the morning after the all-around competition at the 2012 Olympics, champion Gabby Douglas had already gained 200,000 Twitter followers and received props from the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Lil Wayne and Nicki Minaj. Douglas would later grace cereal boxes and magazine covers, make the rounds on the talk show circuit and even star in her own reality TV series.
By contrast, American male gymnasts who win Olympic medals seldom become household names. Danell Leyva, the bronze medalist in the 2012 all-around competition, reportedly still lives at home with his mother and stepfather. Jonathan Horton, the top performer on the U.S. bronze-medal-winning team in 2008, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette two years ago that he receives 10 times more recognition for appearing on the show “American Ninja Warrior” than anything related to gymnastics.
“The women’s combination of athleticism, youthfulness and feminism seems to grant them a broader demographic appeal in America,” said Bob Dorfman, executive director of San Francisco-based Baker Street Advertising.
“Women admire and respect them, men love watching them, boys want to date them, young girls want to be them. And with the must-see Olympics attracting a wider audience than any other sporting event outside of the Super Bowl, it easily makes these athletes household names and faces, attracting a wide array of sponsors.”
There are several factors that contributed to American female gymnasts overtaking their male counterparts in popularity during the 1970s.
The introduction of Title IX in 1972 created more opportunities for female gymnasts at the college level and began the gradual process of cash-strapped athletic departments axing their men’s programs. A new generation of female gymnasts also began appearing about that same time, younger and more petite than their predecessors.
When 14-year-old Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci won three gold medals in 1976 and became the first female to score a perfect 10, she quickly became the darling of that Olympics. Young girls identified with Comaneci’s small stature, vibrant personality and remarkable athleticism. Parents began enrolling toddlers in tumbling classes and more gymnastics clubs began popping up nationwide to satisfy the growing demand.
The popularity of women’s gymnastics might have waned in the U.S. had a wave of talented young Americans not followed Comaneci. From Mary Lou Retton in 1984, to Kerri Strug in 1996, to Carly Patterson, Shawn Johnson and Douglas more recently, the U.S. has produced plenty of “golden girls” to awe fans, entice corporate America and inspire the next generation of female gymnasts.
One reason the U.S. men haven’t enjoyed that same success is because their talent pool is so much shallower.
A smaller percentage of boys participate in gymnastics than girls, and it’s often among the first sports whacked when a college athletic department faces a budget shortfall. There are now 63 Division I schools that offer women’s gymnastics compared to 15 for the men, a huge problem for USA Gymnastics because college remains the primary feeder system for the men’s Olympic team.
“In men’s gymnastics, college is more important,” said USA Gymnastics assistant coach Andriy Stepanchenko. “Girls can make the Olympic team as young as 15, 14 years old. … The majority of the picks for the men’s Olympic team are in their early 20s.”
The best American men’s gymnasts certainly aren’t living off grilled cheese sandwiches and Ramen noodles, but they’re also not raking in name-brand endorsements either. Four-time national champion Sam Mikulak has spent much of this week promoting a tea and energy drink business he co-owns. Two-time Olympian Jake Dalton recently launched his own clothing line.
When the team came to the site of the Olympics for a training camp earlier this year, the athletes decided to try to drum up some attention by stripping off their shirts and posing for a selfie on the beach. The Instagram picture earned them plenty of female admirers, but few sponsorships or endorsements.
The lesson for Mikulak was that fame and fortune will never come unless the American men start winning as consistently as their female counterparts do.
“They just keep winning gold medals,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a hard thing to see. They are on another level compared to any other country, and that’s going to fuel more and more girls to want to be part of that.”
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