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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.

View the rest of this blog and Danica Patrick Slideshow HERE

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.

February 28, 2012  08:17 PM ET

Very good reading, very well put. I agree wholeheartedly.

February 28, 2012  10:29 PM ET

Nice balanced analysis on Danica (and the phenomenon of attractive women in sport).

And the updated logo on the site looks great with the texture and drop shadow added.

February 28, 2012  11:00 PM ET

Ever hear of a fabulously gifted woman called, MARIA SHARAPOVA!! Probably the highest paid athlete on the planet, man or woman. Equipped with the talent and beauty, un-matched by any female athlete in recent history. I could be wrong......but not blind!

February 28, 2012  11:28 PM ET
QUOTE(#3):

Ever hear of a fabulously gifted woman called, MARIA SHARAPOVA!! Probably the highest paid athlete on the planet, man or woman. Equipped with the talent and beauty, un-matched by any female athlete in recent history. I could be wrong......but not blind!

What is your point?
The article above is about the unique situation of somebody that does not particularly excel in her sport nor as a classic model type but has nevertheless combined the 2 elements into a hugely lucrative career.

February 28, 2012  11:35 PM ET
QUOTE(#3):

Ever hear of a fabulously gifted woman called, MARIA SHARAPOVA!! Probably the highest paid athlete on the planet, man or woman. Equipped with the talent and beauty, un-matched by any female athlete in recent history. I could be wrong......but not blind!

Sure, and Maria intentionally isn't mentioned in this article at all because she has nothing to do with the topic at hand. Sharapova is both at the top of her sport AND a classic model type. Danica is neither.

February 28, 2012  11:36 PM ET
QUOTE(#2):

Nice balanced analysis on Danica (and the phenomenon of attractive women in sport).And the updated logo on the site looks great with the texture and drop shadow added.

Thanks YODA. Photoshop is a great tool. :)

February 28, 2012  11:43 PM ET
QUOTE(#3):

Probably the highest paid athlete on the planet, man or woman.

Um no. Not even close. Last year Forbes 50 highest paid athletes, Sharapova came in 28th with $24.3mil mostly from her Nike deal. Tiger Woods made $75million by comparison. Kobe was 2nd at $53mil. Lebron 3rd at $48mil. Federer was the highest earning Tennis player at $47mil, nearly double Maria's income. Sharapova was the highest earning female but no where near the top earning men.

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February 29, 2012  01:40 PM ET
QUOTE(#12):

as for Anna Kournikova, people forget that she was so young when she came onto the tour and was largely done by her 20th birthday, retiring at 22 altogether as a result of back and foot injuries.

A lot of women tennis players break on the scene at a young age and are done early. Not at 22 but they are rarely going past 30.

February 29, 2012  01:47 PM ET

When someone is breaking a barrier or doing something outside the norm they will always face the same criticism. Whether it be a the first person of a certain race or sex if they aren't dominating the sport they will be criticized and told they don't belong or it is a gimmick. They can't be average like Danica is. Heard people all the time she didn't belong in Indy yet she was beating several others every week. If she didn't belong than there was like 10 others that didn't either.

To the point of the article [a good read by the way] if Danica wasn't a good looking girl I doubt she would ever have made it to where she was. Just to much criticism to break through but she is marketable and NASCAR needs that so they let her in.

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February 29, 2012  02:37 PM ET
QUOTE(#10):

Danica is a wrecking machine. If anything, her lack of skill causes more wrecks and makes the races more exciting for the average fan.

She does seem to be in the wrong place at the wrong time quite often but what a week. First the major wreck during qualifying, the taking the pole for the Nationwide race only to wreck out of it, then of course the wreck in the 500...that also took out Jimmie Johnson, BTW.

I don't follow racing enough to determine how much culpability she has in all these wrecks, but it was a wild week for her and racing in general. What I do know is she has people who otherwise pay no attention to the sport, paying attention. Open wheels was one thing (I remember the crazy media storm in Nashville the first time she raced Indy there) but NASCAR is the big leagues and she has the potential to bring a lot of people who couldn't care less about it into the fold.

February 29, 2012  02:50 PM ET
QUOTE(#14):

When someone is breaking a barrier or doing something outside the norm they will always face the same criticism. Whether it be a the first person of a certain race or sex if they aren't dominating the sport they will be criticized and told they don't belong or it is a gimmick. They can't be average like Danica is. Heard people all the time she didn't belong in Indy yet she was beating several others every week. If she didn't belong than there was like 10 others that didn't either.To the point of the article [a good read by the way] if Danica wasn't a good looking girl I doubt she would ever have made it to where she was. Just to much criticism to break through but she is marketable and NASCAR needs that so they let her in.

Spot on. NASCAR is still largely a 'good old boys' sport. A large % of their fan base would be considered politically incorrect 'sexists' by people who live on the coasts or even some of Middle America. That she is easy on the eyes makes her a bit more palatable to these people, but they will over analyze every mistake. Danica went through all of that in open wheels so if anyone is prepared to handle it, it's her. Hell, she finished 38th, I think it was, in the 500 and still won a quarter mil, or something. What does she care about the detractors?

What Danica does is mainstream racing for those who don't care anything about it, and those who still view it as a red-neck sport (it mostly is when you consider the fan base on the whole) If she can manage a couple of top 10's in Nationwide and show respectable in her 10 Nascar events the ratings will be through the roof. Coming back and finishing the 500 with nothing on the line was brilliant to that end. Most would have packed up and called it a day, she can't do that.

February 29, 2012  08:39 PM ET

Yea somehow I don't think Jackie Robinson would have broken the color barrier had he just been a utility player how hit .230.

February 29, 2012  09:57 PM ET
QUOTE(#18):

Yea somehow I don't think Jackie Robinson would have broken the color barrier had he just been a utility player how hit .230.

Jackie is a fascinating story. I'm gonna do a blog on him one of these days. He really had very little to do with breaking the color barrier aside from being the pawn that was used once Branch Rickey and a handful of others decided they were going to do it. He wasn't even supposed to be the man to do it, it was originally supposed to be Larry Doby but a pre-season injury led them to look for someone else. Jackie was chosen because of his mental makeup, not his baseball skill. They expected he could absorb the abuse that was sure to come.

That said, Danica isn't the first woman to race so there really isn't a comparison as she didn't break any perceived barriers. But she is the first with any staying power. In some ways, the scrutiny today is much worse than it was in Robinsons day. The abuse isn't as bad, obviously, but with today's media following every little thing she can't change a tampon without the world knowing about it.

 
February 29, 2012  11:27 PM ET

Did not know that about Jackie and I look forward to the blog. Just starting to learn the history of baseball now as I never really watched, cared for or understood [big one here] the sport.

The mental make up is big. Sounds similar to Joe Louis who after Jack Johnson needed to give a different perspective of a black athlete. Joe was clean cut and knew how to play the game. Got screwed in the end but that was the way back then.

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