Keri Walsh Jennings’ work attire is as sleek as it is skimpy.
Don’t forget her sports watch, and if it’s sunny — as expected this weekend at the AVP New Orleans Open — sunglasses and a visor.
With clothing cut not much different than that of a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model, Walsh Jennings and her female peers on the professional beach volleyball circuit don’t compete in much gear.
In the AVP, track athletes would be considered overdressed.
Athletic freedom or feminism setback?
“I don’t care what brings people out there,” said Walsh Jennings, a three-time Olympic gold medalist (2004, 2008, 2012) for the United States. “If they’re attracted by the uniforms, it doesn’t matter if we’re in boy shorts or bikinis — I don’t care.”
As the biggest American name — male or female — in the game, her stance occurs as AVP attempts to transition the sport from a once-every-four-years spectacle, retaining its Olympic audience in the midst of a crowded national sports scene, with the help of a television contract with NBC.
Then the reality: studies have shown men and women are less likely to watch women’s sports.
Making gains in sports
men have competed in sports in this fashion for decades, openly serving as sex symbols as well as ambassadors of athleticism.
In 1989, the LA84 Foundation authored a study on gender stereotyping in televised sports.
After analyzing six weeks of sports local sports coverage on a Los Angeles television station, which included the men and women’s Final Four and the U.S. Open, the study concluded women’s sports were under-reported and under-represented.
Men’s sports received 92 percent of the air time, women’s sports 5 percent, and gender-neutral topics 3 percent.
More than two decades later, the WNBA and LPGA still trail their male counterparts.
Women, though, have made gains. Venus and Serena Williams (tennis) and Danica Patrick (auto racing) to Brittney Griner (basketball) and Little League pitcher Mo’ne Davis (baseball) have challenged the notion that men are always faster and better.
Still, Williams’ shape is of more concern than that of male No. 1 Novak Djokovic, and Griner’s sexuality a quiet curiosity during her college days at Baylor. Also, Patrick’s Super Bowl commercials with GoDaddy increased the level of innuendo around her career.
All of which makes it harder for the public to envision Walsh Jennings in a two-piece as nothing more than comfy attire in the heat.
Part of the game
Unlike football, a bikini is a better fit for beach volleyball, said Angela Bensend, a former LSU indoor volleyball standout.
After all, her old Lady Tigers uniform would collect too much sand as she dived around the courts this week at Coconut Beach.
Still, Bensend said her wardrobe transition took some time during the summer of 2013.
“It was definitely a little weird at first because I always played in spandex, the biker shorts, and tank tops,” Bensend said. “You had to get comfortable. But it’s actually easy to do.”
Before the 2012 London Olympics, the sport’s international body announced women were allowed to wear shorts and sleeved tops. The move was made out of respect for the cultural beliefs of some countries. Most duos, though, stuck to regular attire.
“You start at such a young age, going to the beach, playing in a bikini,” said Dain Blanton, a former U.S. men’s beach volleyball gold medalist in the 2000 Sydney Olympics. He will cover this weekend’s AVP New Orleans Open as a sideline reporter for NBC.
“When we go to other parts of the world, which might not see women in bikinis all the time, we here in Southern California, in the beach volleyball community — it comes so normal that I don’t believe the girls even think about the sex appeal,” he added. “I think they put on their uniform and go play volleyball like as men, we throw on our boy shorts and go play.”
Walsh Jennings said while she doesn’t expect the AVP to mandate that men play in speedos, plenty of men play the game on Brazilian beaches in the attire.
Do players worry about wardrobe malfunctions during matches?
Said Bensend: “Usually when you try on a bikini you make sure it’s gonna fit and stay before you buy.”