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."Wie, who is still an amateur, has yet to sign any endorsement deals due to her status, although marketers are circling, Levy said. At this point, the 15-year-old seems to be hedging her bets, at least when it comes to apparel. She wears Nike and Adidas as well as other brands when she plays.

"Everyone is paying attention to Wie now," Levy noted.

While women are making strides with larger endorsement deals, contracts probably won't reach the highest level of men's anytime soon, since men still watch far more sports than women and women's sports do not get the kind of TV exposure that men's do, Levy noted.

But it takes more than just winning to gain the eye of marketers and consumers. Olympic gymnast and gold medalist Carly Patterson is an example. Despite her big win at last year's Summer Games in Athens, Patterson has all but disappeared from the public eye.

"Gymnastics is something a lot of people only think about every four years at the Olympics," Levy said. "A lot of this depends on the sport. For example, tennis players are more high-profile and their matches are international and are often on the networks. Those players get far more money on their apparel and footwear deals than colleagues in other sports."

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