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Want to Sell Me Sportswear? Show Me an Athlete

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The Hadids have enough to do.

Bella Hadid Nike Cortez
Bella Hadid stars in Nike’s new Cortez campaign.

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Kendall Jenner was just named the newest face of Adidas. Surprise! Just kidding, nothing is less surprising.

Last week, Hailee Steinfeld was made “brand ambassador” for fitness brand Mission. Just before that, Bella Hadid scored Nike’s new campaign. In it, she models the brand’s reissued Cortez sneakers, originally designed for runners in 1972 and embraced by athletes like Joan Benoit Samuelson, who won the gold medal at the first Olympic women's marathon (not to mention America’s favorite runner, Forrest Gump). What a great opportunity to sign a female track-and-field champ! Seriously though, is not a single female athlete available?

In an era in which female athletes still struggle to get the respect and paychecks of their male peers, athletic brands, especially those shunning athleisure both in name and principal, should be casting female athletes to promote their products — not models.

And yet Karlie Kloss has been the face of both Nike and Adidas. Kylie Jenner fronts Puma, and the other Hadid has laid claim to Reebok. Unlike male athletes (who shill for everything from Uggs to Givenchy), women often compete with professional models and celebrities for endorsements and ad campaigns. Try to name even one professional male model who stars in a sportswear ad.

The phenomenon hasn’t gone unnoticed by female athletes, including Olympic gold medalist Meryl Davis, who observed on Twitter:

Prioritizing female athletes in ads for Nike, Reebok, and more doesn’t only make logical sense; it’s a powerful way to level the playing field.

Female athletes may get more respect now than ever before, but the sports world still broadcasts more TV minutes, spends more for advertising dollars, and generally doles out more praise for male athletes, whose stars rise in turn. Each of those factors influences the other in a vicious cycle; as the Washington Post put it, “for media outlets, decisions about what to cover are market-driven,” and yet “it is hard for women’s sports to find an audience if the public isn’t given the chance to see them.”

Clothing and sneaker ads aren’t the only way the public gets to know athletes. But they’re a pretty important one, considering the explosive athletic apparel business. Sportswear is the strongest segment of the global apparel industry, with sales growth outpacing all other segments in 2016, 2015, and 2014. The overall sporting goods industry (including apparel, sneakers, equipment, and all the other fun stuff they sell at Dick’s Sporting Goods) grew last year to $87.72 billion in total revenue.

In short, promoting all those leggings, sneakers, and sports bras is a big business — one that female athletes should benefit from as much as men like Cristiano Ronaldo and LeBron James do.

officially joining the adidas fam! @adidasoriginals #adidasAmbassador #adidasOriginals

A post shared by Kendall (@kendalljenner) on

Not casting real female athletes in athletic clothing ads is also a missed opportunity to showcase the kind of strong, athletic bodies that actually wear the gear. Even as society’s respect for female athletes grows, it seems we still value outdated concepts of thin-centric beauty more; what’s deemed beautiful enough for an ad campaign is often incompatible with strength. In our smoothie-fueled, ClassPass-loving age, “fit” female bodies are still regulated by a (literally) narrow ideal, one defined by “toning” and barre classes and embodied by Victoria’s Secret angels.

It’s a standard even female athletes grapple with, and it would appear to bias certain body types in ads. Notably, Maria Sharapova out-earned Serena Williams by $10 million in 2015 from endorsements, despite Williams beating her on the court again and again. Silvana Lima, a pro surfer from Brazil, told the BBC she struggled to land sponsorships because “I don’t look like a model. I’m not a babe. I’m a surfer, a professional one... When it comes to women, [the surfwear brands] want both models and surfers. So if you don’t look like a model, you end up without a sponsor, which is what happened to me.” When the sisters Hadid become our fitness role models, we lose the chance to celebrate different body types.

Of course, there’s no advertising imperative that the celebrity in any given ad must sell something related to what they do. Charlize Theron isn’t a perfume chemist for Dior, Jennifer Aniston isn’t in the beverage business, and Matthew McConaughey probably knows no more about cars than the next middle-aged dude. Athletes, too, often promote items having nothing to do with their physical abilities, but they are male athletes, like Rafael Nadal showing off Tommy Hilfiger undies and NFL stars grinning above bowls of Campbell’s soup.

Given the uphill battle female athletes already face to get respect, especially those who don’t fit the “model” body type, giving them a chance to model the clothing they actually wear — for Nike, Reebok, Adidas, Under Armour, Puma, and the countless other athletic brands climbing the ranks — certainly couldn’t hurt.

Thankfully, it’s starting to happen more and more. Misty Copeland, Allyson Felix, Hope Solo, Megan Rapinoe, and Gabby Douglas are among the recent pros who’ve landed in ads for Nike and Under Armour, in addition to mainstays like Sharapova and the Williams sisters. Ronda Rousey got love from Reebok, despite not getting much from the fashion world.

But everyone else needs to jump on this bandwagon until women’s athletic clothing ads match the athlete-filled ads for men. The Hadids and Jenners have enough to do.