Marc Serota / Getty Images
After winning her first IndyCar Series race last week, Danica Patrick has been the center of attention leading up to the Road Runner Turbo 300 this weekend in Kansas City, Mo.
Danica Patrick
Marc Serota / Getty Images
After winning her first IndyCar Series race last week, Danica Patrick has been the center of attention leading up to the Road Runner Turbo 300 this weekend in Kansas City, Mo.
Stars such as the IndyCar driver, who notched up her first win last week, may help female athletes finally break the barrier and compete with men for lucrative endorsements.
By Greg Johnson, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
April 26, 2008
Race car driver Danica Patrick finally beat the boys at their own game Sunday, grabbing the checkered flag at the Indy Japan 300. And, thousands of miles away in Florida, golfer Lorena Ochoa tied an LPGA record by notching her fourth consecutive tour victory.

Now the athletes, both 26 but with styles as different as their sports, can try to do something equally difficult: spin their winning weekend into sports marketing gold.

    No matter that Sparks basketball rookie Candace Parker, yet to play her first WNBA game, recently signed sponsorship deals, with Gatorade and Adidas. When it comes to pitching goods and services, most female athletes continue to fall short of what their male counterparts earn.

    No one of either sex comes close to Tiger Woods, who collected an estimated $100 million in the year ended June 2007 from off-the-course earnings, according to Forbes' Celebrity 100 list. Other male athletes high on Forbes' annual list: Oscar De La Hoya, $43 million; David Beckham, $33 million; and Derek Jeter, $28 million.

    Maria Sharapova, the Russian-born tennis star who lives in Manhattan Beach, is Forbes' top-earning female athlete with an estimated $23 million from corporate deals. Among the handful of women on the list: Michelle Wie ($19 million), Serena Williams ($14 million) and Patrick ($5 million). Unlike on the golf course, Mexico's Ochoa, the sport's top-ranked woman, failed to make the cut.

    The glass ceiling isn't new. In 1996, U.S. Olympic Committee executive director Dick Schultz spoke glowingly of the many successes women enjoyed in Atlanta: "These Games have belonged to the women. By their performances, they've given girls around the world athletic role models."

    The "Summer of Women" turned the spotlight on female athletes in soccer, gymnastics, softball and basketball, but the attention generally didn't translate into lasting marketing success. Now they face increased competition from Hollywood stars who no longer eschew product pitches.

    "That shift has really opened up the market," said Max Eisenbud, an IMG agent who represents Sharapova. "Look at Catherine Zeta-Jones with T-Mobile and Jennifer Aniston with Smartwater."

    Female athletes and their sports rarely enjoy the media exposure of a Kobe Bryant, Peyton Manning or LeBron James. Which is why sports marketers have their eye on Parker, who led Tennessee's Lady Vols to two consecutive NCAA titles.

    "She's very personable, good-looking and really comfortable on camera," said Bay Area advertising executive Bob Dorfman, who edits the Sports Marketer's Scouting Report. "And the deals that she's done are in athletics, which is right up her alley. Whether she can cross over into more nonperformance-oriented products remains to be seen."

    Patrick, one of the few well-known female race car drivers in the world, would seem to be positioned to rev up her off-the-racetrack dealings.

    At the least, her first win in 50 starts should help to put to rest the "Danica Kournikova" sobriquet, a snippy reference to Anna Kournikova, the glamorous tennis star who never won a title. Though winless until last weekend, Patrick had shaped her image with highly publicized appearances in a suggestive commercial and Sports Illustrated's annual swimsuit issue.

    "You can no longer simply dismiss her as a sex symbol," Dorfman said. "She's a legitimate winner, which should help both her and her sponsors."

    Patrick's commercial future will be shaped in part by her past endorsements. The and SI appearances probably have resonated with racing fans, more than 60% of whom are males. Yet Patrick is "a polarizing figure to some women," said Mike Bartelli, a Charlotte, N.C.-based director of Millsport Sports Marketing.

    Reason enough, perhaps, for to have introduced a commercial in which Patrick is shown mentoring a young girl who wants to beat the boys in a go-kart race. "Quite frankly, we did it because it is something different from what we've done," said Bob Parsons, founder and chief executive of the company.

    Sports marketers don't expect Ochoa to do anything differently if she breaks the Ladies Professional Golf Assn. record next weekend.

    Last year, Ochoa earned a record $4.4 million in LPGA prize money.

    She's already attracted more than a dozen corporate partners, including Aeromexico, Banco Popular, Rolex, Audi, Ping and Lacoste, and recently partnered with Oklahoma-based SEMGroup and Callaway. There is room, said Alejandro Ochoa, her brother and business agent, for a technology partner and perhaps a bottled water brand.

    Compared with the less- accomplished Wie, Ochoa remains relatively invisible when it comes to U.S. sponsorships. Her previous agent, Rocky Hambric, said it wasn't for lack of trying.

    "I had Hispanic agencies telling me that, 'no, Mexicans like soccer, baseball and boxing,' " Hambric said. "But this is a woman who is now the No. 1, best-regarded person in her country."

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