Danica Patrick isn't the first female athlete to parlay her looks into lucrative endorsement deals and she certainly won't be the last. What makes Ms. Patrick unique is that she doesn't excel at anything. Don't get me wrong, that's not an insult. Quite the contrary, I find it remarkable that she's been able to achieve what she has with what she has to work with. Similar to Larry Bird or Pete Rose, her tenacity and sheer will to succeed is something to be lauded, not criticized, in my view.
The Hard core feminists out there will say that Danica proves once again that women can do the same things men can if given the opportunity. They will also tell you Danica has been exploited to the Nth degree because of her scatily clad photo shoots. That men wouldn't be asked to pose in such provocative ways, and they'd mostly be right about that. (Michael Jordan and David Beckham underwear commercials not withstanding)
Hard core racing fans will tell you that Danica is a mediocre, at best, driver who only keeps a ride because she wears a bra and looks good in a bikini. Good things for the sports image. They'll contend that her one career win on the Indy circuit was a fluke and she has no business in NASCAR. They'll point to her being notoriously difficult to work with, evidenced by constant changes in her supporting cast. This view has merit as well.
Like most polarizing opinions, the truth lies somewhere in between, making Danica possibly the biggest enigma in sports today, and perhaps ever. Or is she just a marketing genius? As I'll point out over the course of this article, Danica is treading new ground, not walking in the footsteps of predecessors.
There have certainly been other women who attempted to compete with the guys. Michelle Wie being among the most prominent in recent history. Michelle was able to parlay the novelty of playing mens tour events into some big endorsements, even though she really had no business teeing it up with the lowest ranked on the men's tour. The novelty wore off fairly quickly when Ms. Wie proved she simply wasn't capable of competing on that level. Since she was a teenager, overtly bringing sexuality into her endorsements was too taboo to broach. Michelle came onto the scene a few years too early to fully capitalize the way Danica has been able to and her inability to compete destroyed any staying power.
Other attempts by women to compete with men in professional sports have largely failed. The "battle of the sexes" pitting Billie Jean King against an old, washed up Bobby Riggs in a made for TV exhibition was entertaining enough, but hardly a legitimate competition.
Danica, on the other hand, has demonstrated the ability to compete with her male counterparts overall, if not at the highest levels. She may not have accomplished enough to warrant all of the attention in the view of some, but that one win and seven top 3 finishes in Indy racing show that she at least belongs on the same track with the men. Ms. Patrick is perhaps the first female athlete to prove she can compete with men week in and week out. Of course her critics will say I am ignoring that she has an all male team surrounding her and that I'm focusing solely on her job alone. This is certainly true, but that doesn't give her an advantage of any kind so what does it matter? I contend that a 100 pound woman demonstrating the strength and stamina to drive a race car 180 MPH for hours at a time is damn impressive regardless of who is changing the tires.
Of course many female athletes (and some males too) have parlayed their sporting success into lucrative and successful modeling careers. Any attractive celebrity will undoubtedly have these opportunities.
Some, like Anna Kournikova, are made for this role. The Russian beauty wasn't the most searched athlete of either gender for years after her retirement because of her exploits with a tennis racket. While she had a fair amount of success with great partners in doubles competition, her zero wins in singles was nothing noteworthy and certainly didn't justify the immense attention she received.
But what Kournikova had going for her is she was a prototypical model. Anna possessed the European blond bombshell looks and a figure that would have made her a super model with or without tennis as a side gig. She didn't have to compete with the boys to get their attention, she had their undivided attention at all times, whether she wanted it or not. From her "only the balls should bounce" bra campaign to being on People magazines "most beautiful people" list and named ESPN's "sexiest athlete" Anna was a natural.
Danica doesn't fit this role naturally. She is attractive to be sure...in a 'the girl next door' kind of way. Certainly not the kind of woman who modeling agencies would fight over, considering her 5'2" frame would have her looking up at the average runway model more than half a foot taller. While many women would kill to have her toned, hard body, Danica wasn't graced with the curves of an Anna Kournikova. Let's just say Ms. Patrick isn't likely to be offered any full sized bra endorsements anytime soon...
Her own Go-Daddy commercials are filled with gorgeous models who would undoubtedly receive more attention in a night club if nobody knew who Danica was, but the celebrity and novelty of being a race car driver combined with innocent good looks make her the star of the commercials and undoubtedly anywhere she goes. Without the driving job, does anyone believe Danica would have had a national modeling career? On the flip side, without showing skin, would her driving skills alone get her endorsement deals?
The answer to both questions is a resounding NO.
UPDATE: It was brought to my attention that the above link was not working in some browsers. That problem has been fixed and should work now. If anyone else has a problem clicking the link, please let me know.