FOR­WARD PROGRESS

The off-the-field con­tri­bu­tions of fe­male ath­letes are of­ten over­shad­owed by what men do. How can brand part­ners make the dif­fer­ence?

Footwear News - - THE ISSUE - By Peter Verry

Be­ing an elite ath­lete to­day in­volves more than just great feats on the court or the field — it also in­cludes char­i­ta­ble out­reach.

High-pro­file pros such as LeBron James, J.J. Watt and Cris­tiano Ronaldo are of­ten lauded for their gen­eros­ity and com­mu­ni­ty­mind­ed­ness. But they’re not the only ones out there do­ing good.

While fe­male ath­letes are grad­u­ally gain­ing more at­ten­tion for their win­ning ways, their con­tri­bu­tions out­side of sports still garner less at­ten­tion than those of their male coun­ter­parts.

“The [ath­letic] in­dus­try in gen­eral doesn’t do enough to high­light fe­male ath­letes, pe­riod, whether it be achieve­ments in sport or off the field,” said Un­der Ar­mour­backed run­ner Ali­son Désir-Figueroa. “It’s im­por­tant that our sto­ries are heard and shared.”

Since fin­ish­ing her first marathon in 2012 while rais­ing money for the Leukemia & Lym­phoma So­ci­ety, Désir-Figueroa — founder of the New York-based Har­lem Run col­lec­tive — has spear­headed ef­forts that have raised thou­sands of dol­lars for such or­ga­ni­za­tions as Planned Par­ent­hood and Har­lem United. The run­ner was also one of sev­eral women fea­tured in Un­der Ar­mour’s “Un­like Any” cam­paign launched last year, which high­lighted ath­letic abil­ity de­void of gen­der com­par­isons.

But his­tor­i­cally, at­ten­tion such as this has been rare. “The spot­light is on male-dom­i­nated sports; it’s been that way for­ever. I couldn’t name a sin­gle fe­male bas­ket­ball all-star, and it’s the same for soc­cer and other fe­maledriven sports,” said Ree­bok-spon­sored fit­ness model Ash­ley Horner. “If fe­male ath­letes had more me­dia at­ten­tion, [their ef­forts] would be spot­lighted a bit more.”

Out­side of su­per­stars such as ten­nis icon Ser­ena Wil­liams, alpine skier Lind­sey Vonn and bal­let dancer Misty Copeland, the non­com­pet­i­tive achieve­ments of fe­male ath­letes don’t of­ten make head­lines.

Ac­cord­ing to Désir-Figueroa, that means women must make the most of every op­por­tu­nity. “We as fe­male ath­letes need to con­tinue to sup­port each other,” she said, “and jump on mo­ments like this [ar­ti­cle], where al­lies reach out to us and want to post our sto­ries.”

And Horner, founder of the Un­bro­ken Foun­da­tion, which aids bat­tered women and chil­dren’s shel­ters through­out the U.S., em­pha­sized that fe­male ath­letes as a whole could ben­e­fit from be­ing more vo­cal. “A lot of [women] come out for the sea­son and play, [but] they don’t have the per­son­al­ity or the de­sire to use the plat­form that they have. They could be do­ing char­i­ta­ble work, but they just don’t talk about it,” she said.

That’s where part­ner­ships with sports brands can come in, when com­pa­nies use their mar­ket­ing heft to el­e­vate a char­i­ta­ble mes­sage.

“What brands can do is find folks who are mak­ing a dif­fer­ence on and off the field and give them the tools to con­tinue to do that,” DésirFigueroa said. “It’s more authen­tic when the mes­sage is com­ing from the folks who are do­ing the work. The job of the brand is to high­light those sto­ries.”

In March, run­ning brand Brooks teamed up with mid­dle-dis­tance run­ner Gabriele Grunewald’s Brave Like Gabe foun­da­tion, which sup­ports rare-can­cer re­search. Specif­i­cally, the la­bel cre­ated a logo for its star ath­lete, pro­vided T-shirts and bibs for her inau­gu­ral char­i­ta­ble 5K and helped get her in front of me­dia to share her story.

“We find ath­lete part­ners who are a good fit with our ‘Run Happy’ per­son­al­ity and then sup­port the causes im­por­tant to them,” said Steve DeKoker, sports mar­ket­ing man­ager for the brand. “[And] we have our own pro­gram, Brooks Booster Club, that gives back to high school track and cross-coun­try pro­grams. If our pro­fes­sional ath­letes want to par­tic­i­pate, they jump in, but it’s not manda­tory. There aren’t for­mal de­mands on ei­ther side.”

Ex­perts pointed out that lend­ing a hand has ben­e­fits be­yond aid­ing an ath­lete’s mis­sion. “The mil­len­nial con­sumer wants brands to share their val­ues, and they should be play­ing up when ath­letes are do­ing char­i­ta­ble things,” ex­plained Matt Pow­ell, se­nior in­dus­try ad­viser for sports with The NPD Group Inc.

DeKoker agreed that back­ing char­i­ta­ble causes is ben­e­fi­cial for brands. “It’s very much sym­bi­otic. We’re help­ing sup­port their cause, and they’re putting us in front of new con­sumers,” he said. “It pro­vides more of an emo­tional con­nec­tion with the con­sumer ver­sus just: ‘I sup­port this brand be­cause they have fast ath­letes.’”

For her part, Horner said she is op­ti­mistic that to­day’s gen­der dis­par­i­ties will soon end. “The me­dia and the pub­lic are start­ing to see that women are just as badass as any man can be,” she said. “Things are start­ing to change as far as women and their ac­com­plish­ments.”

“Find folks who are mak­ing a dif­fer­ence on and off the field and give them the tools to con­tinue to do that.” — ALI­SON DÉSIR-FIGUEROA

Ali­son Désir-Figueroa led mem­bers of Har­lem Run on a trek from NYC to DC for the 2017 Women’s March

Ash­ley Horner ran 230 miles in Haiti to aid the Mai­son For­tuné Or­phan­age

Gabriele Grunewald pro­motes fit­ness while fight­ing her own bat­tle with can­cer

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