"Sportswomen may have to play the `sex appeal' card to attract more media coverage and therefore more sponsorship," concludes a report by the Sports Sponsorship Advisory Service, an organisation funded by Sport England (formerly the Sports Council) which set out to discover how "middle market" sports like hockey, gymnastics and show jumping can attract greater financial backing.
"Currently 82 per cent of companies are not actively interested in looking for sponsorship of women because male sport generates far greater coverage and attendances," says the report, which reflects the attitudes towards sports sponsorship of 200 of the country's largest blue-chip companies.
"It should be done tastefully," Simon Scott, the manager of the SSAS, said, of how governing bodies can "sex-up" their disciplines. "We're not telling [them] to move away from promoting the sports themselves, but sport is entertainment. It's an industry. The game is part of that, but you need to look at the bigger picture. David Beckham is a brilliant football player but that's not the only reason he attracts attention. His sex appeal is part of what is attractive." He added that the heptathlete, Denise Lewis, is as likely to appear on front pages as back pages, as is the tennis player, Anna Kournikova. Both women have raised the profile and earning power of their sports.
"As much as sex appeal, per se, it's about glamorisation and making the most of what you've got. Hockey, for example, should promote the better looking players, emphasise its personalities," Scott said.
Of the pounds 353m spent each year in this country by companies sponsoring sport, around 90 per cent goes to Formula 1 motor racing, football, cricket, rugby, tennis, athletics and golf. These "big" sports attract that sponsorship money because their governing bodies are in tune with what sponsors want (media coverage, especially television, primarily to raise brand awareness) and can deliver it. The vast majority of other sports struggle for money.
"These include gymnastics, hockey, rowing, volleyball, badminton, canoeing, squash, fencing, mountaineering, equestrian events, table tennis and sailing," Scott said. These had huge numbers of people participating, he added, but governing bodies had failed to make them attractive as mainstream media fodder.
Cynics might suggest that some sports are simply too dull to attract big sponsors, but Scott said that education and marketing are all-important. "Netball can have all the excitement of one-touch football, be fast and athletic. But you need the media interest," he explained.
The best example of a sport transforming itself in recent years, Scott said, was rugby league, which transformed to a summer game when it realised it could not compete with football. Such wholesale metamorphoses are one way that other sports might remake themselves, he added.
The SSAS will now host a series of workshops for sports administrators. "All sports have strengths that would appeal, somewhere," the report says, "although an increasing level of creativity will need to be employed." This, Scott said, might mean appointing marketing specialists.
So, what of the chances of bikini show jumping and beach table tennis in the future? "We're saying: `Look at your assets and make the most of them'," Scott said. "It's what companies want."
BRITISH FIRMS' ATTITUDES TO SPORT
82 per cent do not actively search for sponsorship opportunities in women's sport.
57 per cent said more "sex appeal" in women's sport might increase commercial success.
85 per cent said they prefer men's sport because it gets better media coverage.
63 per cent said they prefer men's sport because attendances are higher.
60 per cent said more attention will be paid to women's sport in the next 10 years.
67 per cent said that sponsorship is an integral part of the marketing.
65 per cent said "image enhancement" is the main reason for sponsoring sport.
87 per cent said their objectives were understood by sports organisations.
63 per cent want to be an event's sole sponsor.
57 per cent believe "middle market" sports (such as hockey and gymnastics) find it difficult to attract sponsorship due to poor media coverage.