At the start of the African Volleyball Confederation women’s club finals at the Moi International Sports Centre Kasarani, the seats at the gymnasium were virtually empty.
Then come last weekend, when Kenya Prisons met Kenya Pipeline for the final, and there was no empty seat at the 6,000-seat gymnasium. Things had changed all of a sudden.
Being a women’s championship, one would have expected more women to come out and cheer their own but, like always, more men turned up for the matches, more so, for the final.
And it was not hard to discern how much the men were enjoying the matches, especially the well toned players in figure hugging outfits.
On the opening days of the tournament, there was partial interest in the games, but after some players’ pictures were published in the newspapers, the social media were awash with comments.
The main story was not the scores but the body hugging flesh coloured shorts the players wore. Twitter and Facebook were abuzz with, “I didn’t know that women’s volleyball was this interesting” talk.
It seems that sporting fashion has become a key part of how female athletes are quite literally getting themselves into the picture.
“The world over, such pictures in newspapers do the trick, said a Nairobi stylist Julia Kirimi. “It was very interesting to see many people turn up for the final, both men and women.
“Many just wanted to see what the stars were wearing as it had been the talk of town for the whole week.”
When it comes to fashion, Janet Wanja of Kenya Pipeline and Jane Wacu of Kenya Prisons are the catwalk queens. The trendsetting volleyball players are known for their colourful wardrobes and hairstyles.
But, while many men have found eye candy in the volleyballers, there has been grumbling among newspaper readers and television viewers that they are quite a distraction.
Though impressed by the national volleyball team, newspaper reader Peter Kiarie wrote to the Daily Nation protesting about the “skimpy playing outfits”.
“They have become even more conspicuous for their dressing than their volleyball,” he wrote. “Their kit is, to say the least, offensive.
“Must they wear those figure-hugging shorts, nay pants? Must they dress so immodestly to win? Though I wish them the best, they must realise that their dressing is a distraction.”
There were supporting views from other readers and opposing views from others. The debate continues and the jury is still out on what is modest and what is not.
There have also been numerous debates on whether sportswomen really need to be in bikinis and short skirts when playing beach volleyball.
This brings to focus cultural and religious sensitivities and, as the world prepares for the London Olympics in July, the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB) has given women beach volleyball players the option to don the usual bikinis or cover up.
“Many of these countries have religious and cultural requirements so the uniform needed to be more flexible,” FIVB spokesman Richard Baker said in a statement.
For those whose interest in the high-octane sport lies in watching bikini-clad athletes swagger on the sand this may not be good news.
Many sports personalities have also stood out in their respective sports for different reasons. Former World number one tennis star Serena Williams has also been an icon, when it comes to fashion.
When she’s not being kitted out by her sponsors Nike she goes for glamour by dolling up in Versace or Dolce & Gabbana.
But Serena is not the only sportswoman who has ever had a love for fashion and designer gear. French star Suzanne Lenglen became a style sensation way back in the 1920s with her fur coats and colourful bandeaus.
Having players’ attire popularise a sport is not a new phenomenon. There was a time when a sultry-looking David Beckham stripped off for the world of luxury advertising, for Armani underwear and then we saw precious column space designated to the diamond earring and necklace choices of Serena Williams.
Swedish footballer Freddy Ljungberg also swapped his jersey for Russian model Natalia Vodianova set of shots for Calvin Klein underwear.
Sports stars have, over the years, been used by managers and sponsors to promote their respective sports as well as attracting more fans to the stadia.
Footballers have traditionally been quick to embrace the glitzy fashion gimmicks thrown their way by sponsors.
For example, ahead of the 2002 Africa Cup of Nations championship in Mali, the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon swapped their traditional kit for body-hugging green vests.
Shirt designers Puma said the new sleeveless shirt was designed to stop players getting hot under the collar.
But others maintained that wearing those basketball-style tops was another ploy to make Cameroon’s stars look cool.
While some designers are out to see their merchandise sell, some players have become ingenious, coming up with their own wear.
Mexico’s Jorge Campos designed his own range of garish goalkeeper’s outfits – presumably to take a striker’s eye off the ball as he prepared to shoot.
“As a professional player, many fans see you as a role model and the clothes we wear or the cars we drive matter a lot,” former Harambee Stars striker Boniface Ambani says.
“That’s why you find sporting icons being used to popularise a given clothing line, cologne or even a car.”
Sports celebrities are idols. Fans look up to them. So when they wear clothes to any event, those clothes seem cool.
In most cases, the stars have stylists who clothe them and might not even have a fashion sense in real life.
Star players are always under scrutiny for their current trends in fashion. As they are public figures, they are inspected thoroughly for their every move.
Therefore, a bad hair day will not help them maintain their image. They have to be careful that they sport a look that is in vogue.
What many of them wear today will be copied by their idolisers tomorrow. Sportsmen and women have the cash to spend on the famous brands and designer labels.
“A few years ago, you couldn’t see players with interesting hairstyles but look at all leagues in the world today and see the emergence of fashion,” Sofapaka and Harambee Stars striker, Bob Mugalia, says.
“The influence of big players is being seen even here at our local league.” Mugalia has plaited his hair. Celebrities and their fashion statements have paved the way for celebrity advertising.
This is an important strategy that has made them sustain the industry and earn big money. American historian, Daniel J. Boorstin, once said: “A sign of a celebrity is that his name is often more worth than his services.”
Marketers and advertisers acknowledge and use celebrity power to influence consumer purchasing decisions.
This is because, people often relate more to an icon they have always emulated or liked. This way, celebrity endorsements bestow specific attributes on a product that it could have lacked otherwise.
Shy almost to the point of being secluded, Argentine football star Lionel Messi is the rare modern-day athlete who seems to live with the attention he gets as opposed to craving it.
From his humble beginnings to becoming one of the highest paid sportsmen in the world, Messi has managed to retain his sense of place in life, and you honestly feel he would play football free if asked to.
Messi, the three-time reigning Fifa world player of the year, was paid $43.5 million (Sh3.4 billion) in combined salary and endorsements last year.
He has recently built up his endorsement portfolio, which now includes Adidas, PepsiCo, Konami, Audemars Piguet, Chery and AirEuropa. He has since struck a deal with Dolce & Gabbana.
Not only have players wowed fans back to the stadia, but teams have also gone to extreme lengths to get the stands filled up during matches.
If a close look at how the games developed to their present form is to be taken, one must consider the demand of the spectators as a factor.
Many are the times when a navel or cleavage flashing woman will serve as eye candy for the spectator.
And every time a football player pulls off a good move, skimpily dressed women shake their bodies to “cheer”.