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  •   Chastain Lifts Sports Apparel Market

    Women's World Cup logo By Ann Gerhart
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Wednesday, July 14, 1999; Page C1

    Fifteen months ago, back when soccer player Brandi Chastain was still largely unknown, she told Nike apparel designers exactly what she wanted in a sports bra.

    "If I know that at some point I might take it off," she said, meaning her shirt, "I'd like [the bra] to look nice. I'd like someone to look at me and go, oh, that's nice, I'd wear that."

    On Saturday, when she ripped off her shirt in exultation after her World Cup-winning kick, the hard-bodied Chastain was wearing the sports bra she helped create. Nike is now drooling over its payday, rushing into production the new line it had planned to introduce at month's end and lining up promotional appearances for Chastain.

    Already under contract to the sports-gear giant for a sum estimated to be in the mid-five figures, Chastain won't make any more money from taking off her shirt, insists a Nike spokeswoman, although her agent sincerely hopes he can negotiate a new contract. And the 30-year-old forward with the penchant for drama says her sudden strip was merely the result of "temporary insanity."

    But whether spontaneous ebullience or planned product placement, the star's move has exposed, in addition to her rippling abs, a whole set of issues related to female athletes and body image and earning power. And it has brought instant attention to a piece of clothing that is humble and practical – not a traditional bra of shine and lace and cleavage, but a sturdy compression garment. The sports bra is the cloth symbol of Title IX's success. Last year, $230‚million worth of them were sold, up from $205‚million the year before.

    While the Sports Illustrated cover photo of Chastain in the bra drew sustained cheers from passersby yesterday during a Niketown rally in Manhattan, the player is unlikely to reap a cash bonanza, said sports agents and marketing experts yesterday.

    "The singular act is not enough to do it," said Leonard Armato, the agent responsible for the money juggernaut that is Shaquille O'Neal. "I wouldn't think she has the base or the engine. Building a brand out of an athlete requires regular, systematic ongoing exposure at a very high level."

    Only about a dozen female athletes in the United States have significant endorsement contracts, and they range from only $75,000 to $350,000 – a pittance compared with male athletes' earnings – says Bob Williams, president of Burns Sports, a Chicago marketing firm that matches advertisers with athletes. Chastain's agent, John Courtright, said last night he expects to usher her to the top tier of those athletes.

    He mentioned WNBA players and soccer teammater Mia Hamm, whose Nike shoe contract and Gatorade work help bring her an estimated $1 million in off-field income and said, "I would like to get her to that level." Chastain was unavailable for comment.

    This week, Courtright and Chastain are sifting through the television and endorsement offers that have poured in, as well as trying to renegotiate the Nike contract that expires in three months.

    "Saturday's moment has kind of put her in a different level," said Courtright. "Brandi hasn't changed. But that moment changed her value, or revealed it."

    Courtright emphatically denied the player had premeditated her unveiling.

    "In the spontaneity of the moment, a lot of emotions were unleashed. She is an outgoing, effervescent person and player," said Courtright, "and that showed its true colors on Saturday."

    The Brandi bra moment has "probably conjured up some moments of imagination for most men," said Mike May, carefully. He works for the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, where they know full well that women buy the majority of all sporting goods and, increasingly, some of it is for themselves. "It was the most frequently discussed topic of conversation in the last 48 hours, and we came to the conclusion that this was a spontaneous moment," May said. "What she revealed wasn't that revealing."

    On America Online yesterday, nearly 80 percent of users who voted in a poll said the Brandi moment was "no big deal" and just a celebration of victory.

    Kathryn Reith, a Nike executive for women's apparel, erupted in screams when the women's team took the World Cup. Then, when Chastain displayed her bra, Reith said, "We had no idea. I was totally flabbergasted, and I started screaming even louder, if that's possible." Nike had outfitted players in gear and shoes, and fitted the players last month with prototypes of its new Inner Actives bras.

    Nike, a late entrant into the lucrative sports bra market, says it is aiming at the top-quality end of the market. Designers assembled a panel of athletes, including, in addition to Chastain, tennis players Lindsay Davenport and Mary Pierce, as well as some college women training for marathons. Chastain wasn't paid specifically for her role; her relatively small contract with Nike called for her to make certain appearances. In April 1998, "we picked their brains on what they liked and didn't like. Brandi said that being able to breathe was important," Reith said. The players' comments were videotaped.

    The company then embarked on a high-tech journey into the disciplines of physiology, biomechanics and anatomy. Technicians tried prototype bras on women of various sizes, put the women through a series of grueling aerobic activities, and examined chafing, moisture-wicking and comfort. Scientists measured jiggle using high-speed photography and sensors placed on the chest and breast. "And they worked great," Reith said.

    Many sports marketing gurus, most of them men, predict Nike will get a huge bounce from the Brandi bra. But some women retailers don't know if their savvy consumers will pony up $40 to $47 for the Nike bras. They are priced at least a third higher than dominant brands.

    "Nike is kind of late to the party on this," says Alice Lee, a buyer for Title IX Sports, a catalogue company for women's athletic apparel. Forty percent of the company's business is sports bras, in some 30 styles. "The average woman is a 36C, and until a few years ago, not a single major manufacturer made a sports bra for them."

    Chastain's impetuosity was not without precedent – for her or among other top-notch female athletes. Before the game's giddy penalty phase finish, she had already taken off her shirt at the end of regulation play – because she was hot. (Male soccer players routinely whip their shirts off at the drop of a penalty kick.) Earlier, she had posed nude for Gear, the frat boy's Esquire, accessorized with nothing but a soccer ball and cleats. "Hey, I ran my [butt] off for this body," she explained. "I'm proud of it."

    Julie Foudy, who quipped that the women's team featured "booters with hooters," posed with her husband for the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. Goalie Briana Scurry fulfilled a pledge to streak through the streets of Athens, Ga., after the team's 1996 Olympic gold medal.

    All this activity has led to some clucking over the objectification of women's soccer, worrying some observers that the team's tremendous athletic accomplishments may be overshadowed by their tomboy sexiness.

    Yet WNBA players frequently tear off their jerseys on their way off the floor after practice; volleyball players wear nothing but sports bras on the court. Anna Kournikova favors them for tennis matches, and Venus Williams wears dresses that cover less of her torso.

    "I think women have fought sexual stereotypes for a long time, and it's okay for Dennis Rodman to rip off his shirt and throw it into the crowd and parade around bare-chested," said Williams of Burns Sports. "It's not okay for women to do that. There are a lot of stereotypes about women taking off their clothes, and they don't jibe with the image women are trying to promote."

    That said, he added: "I think what's sexy is changing. You wouldn't classify most athletes as being in the waif mode. These are women who are toned and trained but not in that skinny model mode that magazines have glamorized for years as being sexy. A woman who is athletic and intelligent and takes great care of herself and doesn't look anorexic is just tremendously appealing."

    Armato, who represents WNBA players Lisa Leslie and Dawn Staley as well as Shaq, recalled Jim Palmer and his Jockey shorts ads of yesteryear. "I bristle when people criticize women for flaunting their sexuality in sport, because men have done that forever. I thought it was uplifting."

    Or, as Chastain herself told Nike back in her focus group days, on what a flattering sports bra means:

    "Here's a woman that's strong and feels comfortable taking her shirt off and being in an environment where someone is going to look at her . . . and that's fine and you don't have to think twice about it."

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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