Skin in the Game

Will sexy sports sell in Minnesota?

Last fall at the Armatage Recreation Center, a crowd of hopeful young women gathered in response to an advertisement that called for the following: “Ages 18–35, Athletic, Sexy, Look Good in Bikini, and Love Basketball.” It was the inaugural tryout for a nascent team called the Minnesota Mist, which, for about as long as it takes to put on—or take off—a two-piece, was part of the Bikini Basketball League. The team’s promotional tagline: Prepare to Be Mistified.

Many were. After all, it’s hard to know what to make of the sudden boom in so-called fantasy sports. Not the leagues where guys pick a dream team of all-star players and pretend they’re Bud Grant. We’re talking about fantasy sports like the Minnesota Valkyrie, the state’s two-year-old franchise in the Lingerie Football League. And the recently formed Bikini Hockey League, of which there appears to be two, albeit with no Minnesota franchise—yet. And the Bikini Softball League, which may indeed arrive here (it was accepting team applications from hard-hitting hard-bodies at press time).

Whether any of these fantasies can really come true in the land of 10,000 parkas remains to be seen. A few months after the Minnesota Mist held its tryouts, the team actually withdrew from the Bikini Basketball League—the owner, Minneapolis native and former Minnesota Lynx star Tamara Moore, thought there was too much focus on the word “bikini.” So she helped launch a separate league called, apparently without irony, Beautiful Ballers. (For similar reasons, the Lingerie Football League recently renamed itself the Legends Football League.) According to Moore, the new league, like the old one, seeks to fuse “femininity, beauty, and basketball” in order to harness the “fantasy thought process.” In other words: beautiful women taking jump shots in “fantasy uniforms”—which are not, strictly speaking, bikinis. They also do charity work, fundraisers, and a Big Mist, Little Mist mentoring program. Sexy.

None of these leagues are exactly “Women Athletes Gone Wild,” but to watch them is to feel part foreign-exchange student, part visiting anthropologist. Who are these people, and where are we? Times have changed, obviously, so maybe this is no big deal. But if you remember when sexy photos were something you had to steal from a back room at the local barbershop, it’s all a bit, well, mistifying. For women, there’s no shame now in performing in your skivvies. For men, there’s no shame in buying a ticket and planting yourself in the front row. You can save money on the trench coat and sunglasses.

Proponents of these sorts of things use words like “empowerment.” But if that’s the case, does that put half-nude sports in the same sphere as tough and trendy roller derby? Is there any difference between “fantasy uniforms” and the twin scraps of Lycra covering Olympic beach-volleyball players? Or the Speedos covering divers? Or the (arguably) sexy unitards of runners? Or is it more useful to think of sexy sports as akin to burlesque, which has recently burnished its reputation as empowering entertainment? Or, for that matter, the new MNUps magazine, a sexy but SFW pictorial full of winking suburban Betty Grable wannabes from the Twin Cities.

And anyways, who’s to judge? Maybe beautiful balling really is some new, more liberated, more feminine form of entertainment. Maybe women playing full-contact football in their underwear is the new Feminine Mystique, not a feminine mistake. Or maybe beauty is simply in the eye of the ball holder. What would we know about this in a place where six months out of the year we’re too cold to take off our coats? The only sure bet is this: when the Mist hit the floor in their first game this month, a lot of Minnesotans will be mystified.

Frank Bures, of Minneapolis, has written for Harper’s, Esquire, Outside, and Salon