The top 10 female athletes ranked by their “likability.”
As part of its StarPower USA 2006 report, Genius Insight, a New York marketing and research firm, has ranked favorite active female athletes by fan-base size. “This is an ideal measure of endorsement potential for these athletes,” stated Paul Jenkins, co-founder and principal of the firm. Why such low percentages? “The report incorporates both celebrities and athletes,” said Marcus Young, Genius Insight’s director of marketing. “Athletes’ scores are pretty much driven by sports fans, versus the celebrities, whose scores are driven by the general public — of which sports fans are included.” Though the athletes represent a variety of women’s sports, tennis reigns supreme in the top 10. “Both men and women will sit down to watch a women’s tennis match. That’s not always the case in figure skating,” Young said. Visibility and awareness also influence athletes’ likability scores. Many in the top 10 make celebrity appearances and have lucrative endorsement deals.
1. SERENA WILLIAMS
Percentage of respondents who say they “like this female athlete a lot”: 14.34
Known for her flashy jewels and emotional outbursts on the tennis court, the younger Williams sister has also taken a keen liking to the fashion world. She and sister Venus often make appearances at fashion shows. In New York this past February, Serena stopped by Luca Luca and Michael Kors to see what’s coming this fall. At Kai Milla’s fashion show, Williams told WWD she is moving forward with a signature sportswear label of her own. “My collection is called sportswear, but it’s more like what I’m wearing,” she said, referring to her strapless top and jeans tucked into knee-high boots. The novice fashion designer is a guest color creator for Flirt Cosmetics, which is produced by the Estée Lauder Cos.’ BeautyBank division and distributed exclusively at Kohl’s stores.
2. LAILA ALI
Standing at 5 feet, 10 inches and weighing roughly 168 lbs., Ali is arguably one of the most visible female boxers. The 28-year-old, the youngest daughter of Muhammad Ali, made her professional debut in 1999 and has a record of 22-0 (19 of them knockouts). Ali has had endorsement deals with Dr. Pepper, Ford Motors and Bum Equipment, and currently endorses Soft Sheen-Caron Hair Care products, Nicotrol and Adidas. “Ali is really popular, not only because she’s done a lot of celebrity-type exposure, but films like ‘Million Dollar Baby’ have also helped to raise awareness for female boxers,” said Marcus Young of Genius Insight. In May 2005, Ali attended the opening of Adidas’ new sport performance flagship on the corner of Broadway and Houston Street in New York.
3. VENUS WILLIAMS
In July 2005, the elder Williams sister defeated Lindsay Davenport in the longest women’s final in Wimbledon history. Later that summer, at the U.S. Open, WWD reported that Williams’ lilac dress with metallic embroidery reflected current fashion trends in the tennis world. Though somewhat quieter than her younger sister, Williams certainly is just as busy: In November 2003, the 25-year-old began her own interior design business, V Starr Interiors. She has also designed a collection of leather apparel that is sold exclusively at Wilson’s the Leather Experts. She has endorsements with Wilson Racquet Sports, American Express and McDonald’s.
4. MARIA SHARAPOVA
The 6-foot, 2-inch blonde burst onto the tennis scene in 2004 at Wimbledon, capturing her first Grand Slam title. Sharapova is a walking endorsement: The latest for the Russian teenager includes Tag Heuer’s continuing “What Are You Made Of?” campaign. Sharapova also has deals with Nike, Prince, Canon, Motorola and Colgate-Palmolive — and she recently signed with car company Land Rover, according to the WTA Tour Web site. Last fall, Sharapova and Parlux Fragrance teamed up to create a fragrance called “Maria Sharapova,” which launched in September. “The fragrance has a very flowery feeling, very elegant and sophisticated,” said Sharapova. Style on the court: Sharapova donned a bold, black-and-white corset top and black skirt taken from Nike’s spring fitness dance collection at the Nasdaq Open in March (seen left).
5. MICHELLE KWAN
Kwan didn’t quite make it to her third Olympics this year, thanks to a nasty groin injury. But that didn’t stop fans from continuing to root for figure skating’s most-decorated athlete in U.S. history, according to the U.S. Figure Skating Association. Kwan has won an unprecedented 42 championships, including five World Championships, eight consecutive and eight overall U.S. Championship titles and two Olympic medals — silver in 1998 and bronze in 2002. The 25-year-old figure skater from Southern California, who has frequently worn skating outfits designed by Vera Wang, was named one of the “50 Most Beautiful People in the World” by People magazine in May 2000.
6. KELLY CLARK
Clark won the first gold medal in snowboarding for the U.S. at the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City. She took home gold in the halfpipe, even though, at 18, she was the youngest competitor. But Clark had one of her most successful seasons in 2004-05. She placed second in three U.S. Grand Prix events and in February took home her first World Cup victory in four years — on the Olympic halfpipe in Bardonecchia, Italy. She entered the Turin Games as the defending halfpipe gold medalist, but was not a favorite to win the 2006 title: She was in fourth place going into her final run and fell just before crossing the finish line, and thus remained fourth.
7. AMELIE MAURESMO
French-born Mauresmo is number one in the Women’s Tennis Association Tour rankings. Her sponsor, Reebok, outfitted her at the U.S. Open last September. WWD reported that Mauresmo helped design her own look, appearing in a violet Rbk-branded tennis tank top and skirt. And at the Australian Open in January, Mauresmo chose a red Reebok dress (seen left) and won the tournament, beating out Justine Henin-Hardenne, ranked number nine on this list.
8. JENNIFER CAPRIATI
Perhaps it’s Capriati’s tumultuous career that has kept fans rooting for her all these years: She was a rising star in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but suffered major setbacks after a shoplifting incident and an arrest for possession of marijuana. She returned to the tennis scene in 2001. Throughout her career, Capriati has won 14 professional singles titles and one doubles title. In 2005, TENNIS Magazine named her one of the 40 Greatest Players of the modern tennis era. Recently, she has struggled with injuries that have kept her from playing a full tour schedule — and the 30-year-old hinted in March that her tennis career could soon be drawing to a close.
9. JUSTINE HENIN-HARDENNE
So far this year, Henin-Hardenne has won the Tier II tennis event in Dubai in February, and in April she led her beloved home country, Belgium, to victory over defending champion Russia in the Fed Cup. Henin-Hardenne is in first place in the WTA Tour rankings. WWD reported that at the U.S. Open in September, Henin-Hardenne — who is known for her conservative style — surprisingly wore flashy red looks from her sponsor, Adidas. The 23-year-old athlete lives in Monte Carlo with her husband, Pierre-Yves Hardenne, whom she married in November 2002.
10. ANNA KOURNIKOVA
Named “the most popular tennis player never to win a singles tournament,” Russian-born Kournikova has been plagued by injuries lately, but continues to compete in charity events. The 24-year-old took the tennis world by storm at age 15, when she reached the fourth round at the 1996 U.S. Open; she also made the semifinals at Wimbledon in 1997. But recently, she has earned more publicity modeling for Maxim, FHM, Sports Illustrated and Cosmopolitan. Her romances with pop star Enrique Iglesias and NHL stars Sergei Federov and Pavel Bure have kept her in the tabloid spotlight. Kournikova has been seen at the last couple of fashion weeks in New York — in February, she stopped by the Adidas/Y-3 fashion show, and last September she made an appearance at the tents for Monique Lhuillier.
Source: genius insight, which considers rankings 1-3 and 8-10 to be statistically tied; The sample size was 2,440 respondents in the U.S., ages 13-49