By  on July 7, 2005

NEW YORK — Marketers seem to have finally woken up to the power of female athletes.

Huge endorsement deals traditionally have been rare in women's sports, but a new crop of female athletes is challenging the status quo.

Even though she didn't repeat as Wimbledon champion on Saturday, Maria Sharapova is one of the highest paid female athletes in history, earning about $18 million last year. While that figure pales in comparison to the $87 million Tiger Woods racked up in 2004, it's clear female athletes are being taken more seriously and are beginning to garner the kind of endorsement contracts that largely have eluded women champions in the past. Annika Sorenstam, one the world's most successful female golfers, earned about $7.3 million last year.

"When it comes to endorsement deals, the gap is shrinking between male and female athletes," said Marc Ganis, president of SportsCorp, a Chicago-based sports marketing agency. "Sharapova is setting a new bar."

Among the companies with which Sharapova now has deals are Nike, Tag Heuer, Prince and Canon.

Dan Levy, director of women's sports at Octagon, the global sports marketing firm, said, "There is a great deal of enthusiasm now for elite female athletes. More girls are playing sports than ever before. Compared to what it was, there have been significant strides in the endorsement deals women athletes are getting now."

Indy Racing League driver Danica Patrick and golfer Michelle Wie are a few of the young female athletes who are likely to rack up significant endorsement deals, sports marketing experts said. Despite placing fourth at the Indy 500 race in May, Patrick stole the show and was the subject of numerous stories in the press. The 23-year-old placed higher than any woman ever had at the annual race and was named "Rookie of the Year" for 2005.

Patrick, who is petite and attractive, already has deals lined up with fashion retailer Bebe and racing-specific companies such as Bell, a helmet company, and it's likely more sponsorship will be coming soon.

"Whether she becomes a dominant racer or not, all she has to do is be competitive with the men," Ganis said. "Her appeal is extraordinary, and I think she has the right stuff and she won't be a fad. As soon as the contracts she has expire, the new ones will be for far greater amounts."

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