After de-robing in the locker room for a shamefully brief 30 seconds, Rafael Nadal looks over his bare, perfectly tanned and muscled shoulders—which connect to the bare and perfectly tanned and muscled rest of him—and flashes a naughty smile.
He knows exactly the dirty thoughts some of us may be thinking, and he revels in this sexual objectification, or at least revels in the thought of how many pairs of Tommy Hilfiger underwear it will sell.
The eighth-ranked male tennis player in the world is no stranger to flaunting his Adonis-esque figure in the name of, shall we say, commercial interests.
Nadal’s 2011 campaign for Emporio Armani is the stuff of (wet) dreams.
But his tighty-whitey jaunt for Hilfiger marks a new height in Nadal’s embrace of boy-toy branding.
Nadal may dominate on the court with his forehand’s heavy topspin, but he is more than happy to play the role of sex object off the court. He flaunts, struts, and more than invites the female and male gaze for the steamy promo for Hilfiger’s latest underwear line.
Nadal is the best-known tennis player to display his “spornosexuality,” a term coined by British writer Mark Simpson to describe the rise of the lithe, toned athlete as the ultimate and inviting sex symbol—and with it, the male athletes’ embrace of this once exclusively feminine position of the objectified.
While fellow Spaniard Fernando Verdasco has done his Zoolander turn as beefcake underwear model, the tennis players who rival Nadal on the courts, namely Roger Federer and Andy Murray, have not gone this route… yet.
They may not be far behind, considering that two of the most famous athletes in the world, David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo, have heartily embraced the spornosexual style.
As a member of the spornosexual camp, Nadal is part of a relatively new group of male athletes happy to objectify themselves and use their sports-honed physique to play up pretty-boy sex appeal.
Historically, male athletes, and male celebrities in general, stuck to traditionally masculine categories, showing off their athletic skills or playing up machismo swagger.
While Ronaldo still tries to couch this spornosexual image as deeply connected to his soccer performance—watch his post-match “recovery” cold bath for proof (and pleasure)—by and large, the spornosexuals seem to realize that their athletic skills aren’t what’s on display.
But while Nadal is only too happy to show off his moneymaker (not a euphemism in this case), Serena Williams offers a stark contrast.
As women’s athletic advertisements have moves towards highlighting strength, skill, and muscularity, men’s athletic endorsements are moving in the opposite direction, playing up the sex symbol factor traditionally considered feminine.
Though the two excel at the same sport, juxtaposing the branding strategies for Williams and Nadal offers an interesting case study in the evolution of the marketing of male and female athletes.
Williams is not merely the woman with the most buzz for this year’s U.S. Open, but the athlete.
No male or female tennis player rivals the ooh’s, ahh’s, and attention directed toward Williams—and with very good reason. She’s on the verge of making history as the first female player in nearly three decades to win all four Grand Slam tournaments in a single year, with the Australian Open, French Open, and Wimbledon already jewels in her 2015 crown.
Her sphere of influence expands far beyond Arthur Ashe Stadium, though. She’s nabbed covers on New York and New York Times magazines. Both profiles speak not only to her larger social significance, but also her ability to sell on the newsstands.
When Williams is photographed for adverts and profiles, she looks beautiful but her facial expression is not inviting. She appears focused and steely, as if she could not care less that the camera is on her.
She is dramatically more clothed in her spread for New York than Nadal is in his underwear ads.
Even when Williams is modeling a swimsuit, the focus is on her remarkably strong thighs or her rippling abdomen muscles. In many ways, she has come to embody the traditional athletic ideal of strength and focus more than her male counterparts.
This evolution in the marketing of male athletes toward sexual objectification runs opposite to the way we see Williams and other female sports figures increasingly advertised: strong, physical, and tough as nails. They are competitors, not purely fodder for sexual fantasies.
One should not paint these inverse trajectories in too-broad brushstrokes. Though she regularly loses to Williams on the court, Maria Sharapova beats her in sales and endorsements.
The London School of Marketing ranked Sharapova the 12th-most marketable athlete this year, while Williams just cracked the top 20.
As Patrick Rishe at Forbes noted, Sharapova pulled in $23 million in endorsements this year, completely dwarfing Williams’s $13 million.
Behind this disparity lies old stereotypes of beauty.
Sharapova is more conventionally feminine and attractive. She is blond and more trim than muscular in build.
“I think the corporate world still loves the good-looking blond girls,” tennis legend Chris Evert told The New York Times when asked about the Williams-Sharapova earning gap.
It’s not just that Sharapova is blond. She’s white. Race is the not-so-silent elephant in the room.
A colleague suggested the reason Williams is complimented for her Amazonian physique is not just a result of her muscular figure, but of her race.
Praising black people for their supreme strength has, historically, been a way to code them as animalistic and primal in a derogatory way.
“As long as the white imagination markets itself by equating whiteness and blondness with aspirational living, stereotypes will remain fixed in place,” Claudia Rankine wrote in an article titled the “The Meaning of Serena Williams” in the latest New York Times Magazine.
In the piece, Williams acknowledged the endorsement gap, but she also hesitated to get too caught up in the potential racism behind the disparity. ‘‘If they want to market someone who is white and blond, that’s their choice," she told Rankine.
Williams sees herself as one of many in a long line of black athletes who are changing the American sports and marketing landscape. "We have to be thankful, and we also have to be positive about it so the next black person can be No. 1 on that [endorsements] list. Maybe it was not meant to be me. Maybe it’s meant to be the next person to be amazing, and I’m just opening the door," she told Rankine.
And while Sharapova’s race and attractiveness certainly factor into her endorsement ads, her commercials and promotional spots have also long played to her strength and physical prowess.
Even in 2006, her “I Feel Pretty” commercial for Nike showcased her grunting and staring down opponents, challenging those who thought she was just a pretty face.
While Chris Evert demurely hocked shampoos, Williams, Sharapova, and a fleet of female sports figures are increasingly marketed for their brute athleticism.
Yes, female athletes are still frequently boiled down to their “hotness.” The ESPN body issue skirts a very thin line between valuing athletes, especially female ones, for their strong, toned bodies and just gawking at their naked forms.
Still, it’s encouraging to see the representative examples of Nadal and Williams challenge the way male and female athletes are “supposed” to be. And if that means more nearly-nude shots of Nadal, then so be it.