Hope Solo, Abby Wambach take different paths

Hope Solo and Abby Wambach arrived back in the United States following their team's upset loss to Japan in the Women's World Cup final deflated, disappointed but imminently more marketable.

The breakout stars of a team that captured the broader American public's attention with a scintillating run to the final, Solo, the stalwart goaltender, and Wambach, the clutch forward, not only heightened their stance as icons within the soccer community but piqued the interest of corporations in search of the next persuasive endorser.

Both have reaped rewards in the three months following their return from Germany, but the paths they have taken in the lucrative but arduous business of profiting from their athletic toil are markedly different.

Solo, 30, has leveraged her instant fame from multitudes of television appearances and magazine covers to sign deals worth millions of dollars in the months following the World Cup. She also is a contestant on "Dancing With the Stars" and posed recently in ESPN The Magazine's Body Issue.

Some industry analysts say she could sustain her momentum to become one of the most influential female endorsers since the rise of Venus and Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova and Danica Patrick.

Wambach, 31, while earning a comfortable living as an endorser, has been much less visible. Her snippets of national branding exposure have been limited to a commercial for the MagicJack Internet phone device, which, like her professional soccer club, is owned by Dan Borislow.
Therein lies not only a contrast in personalities, but a study in how female athletes become stars, personalities and well-paid endorsers, and the choices that impact that aspect of their careers.

"It's strange to me," Solo said in a phone interview with espnW as she rode to a morning "DWTS" rehearsal. "I'm 30 years old, I just got off shoulder surgery, I didn't have my best World Cup, yet all of a sudden I am endorsing all sorts of products, I am asked to be on television shows and I always take it with a grain of salt.

"You can't predict it. I would have predicted this to happen years ago, not when I'm 30. Do I want to stay in the spotlight? As long as I can continue to be me -- and if that's being a role model to female athletes, whether it's to be a confident woman who is able to kind of speak to other women about that -- I know that somehow, some way I'll be involved and continue to be kind of a powerful woman. I'm not saying I'm against being in the spotlight, but I'm not trying to be in it."

Solo is far from the stratosphere of the highest-paid female athletes, which is occupied by the likes of the Williams sisters and Patrick, but she's making quick progress, said Wasserman Media Group's Richard Motzkin, who has managed Solo for 10 years.

"I think, honestly, we're doing it," he said. "When you're an individual-sport athlete and you're highly successful, it's an easier pathway. For female athletes on a team sport, outside of Mia [Hamm], there aren't many that come up in the mainstream conversation, and quite honestly that's what we're trying to do with Hope, to align her with companies that will use her in mainstream marketing campaigns, not just female soccer-related campaigns."

Since the end of the World Cup, Solo has signed multiyear endorsement deals with Gatorade, Bank of America, BlackBerry, Ubisoft and Electronic Arts that are believed to exceed seven figures. Motzkin mined his contacts at ABC during the World Cup to land Solo on "Dancing with the Stars." The show has a weekly average of 17.5 million viewers and is an express train to the middle class of consumers. It can help an athlete such as Solo become a major marketing player by "helping build her brand well beyond her soccer playing days into some long-term staying power," Motzkin said.

Dr. Stephen McDaniel, a consumer psychologist at the University of Maryland who studies sports marketing and fan behavior, said Solo may be positioned to exploit a ripe segment of the American buying public. According to a report in Sports Business Journal, Solo's standing after the World Cup on the Davie Brown Index, which measures a celebrity's ability to influence brand affinity, was "on par" with that of Miami Heat player Dwyane Wade.

"Think how unique Hope Solo is," McDaniel said. "She's very telegenic, she's attractive, she's successful; she's the kind of person that can translate into a personality. And also, if you think of it, women comprise 52 percent [of the population]; they're participating in unprecedented numbers, and the No. 1 participant sport is soccer.

"Obviously, Hope Solo is a very viable commodity when you look at the number of young women who participate in soccer at the high school-and-below level. Think about the segment of the population that plays soccer. Traditionally, we've thought of it as a white, middle-class-to-upscale, suburban sport, and you could see where [financial services] would be attractive to soccer moms."

Whether a certain athlete becomes a marketing force is dependent on many factors. Marketers and agents are loath to suggest that athletes considered attractive are more likely to be successful endorsers, even though sex appeal is often leveraged in their non-athletic work. Patrick and former tennis player Anna Kournikova have posed in men's magazines and used physical attractiveness to sell products from watches to motor oil, and McDaniel said their physical appearance may have given them a business advantage over contemporaries perhaps not considered as attractive by the mainstream.

Doug Shabelman, president of Burns Entertainment, which matches companies with celebrity endorsers, said attractiveness helps but that multiple factors favor Solo as she attempts to perpetuate her popularity during periods in which soccer is not prevalent in the national consciousness -- outside Olympic and World Cup years --- and into her retirement from athletics.

"Personality, that comes with it; attitude helps," he said. "Every time you see Hope Solo, she's pumping her fist and clapping her hands and she's got a really great demeanor and a great smile and everything about it is positive. That's not to say the same thing about Abby. I can't really say where Abby is. Abby is not unattractive, but I don't know what she wants to do."

Not "Dancing with the Stars," Wambach said. It just doesn't fit her personality. Wambach has had a deal with Nike since 2002 and, like Solo, has deals with Bank of America and Gatorade. More understated personally and professionally, Wambach encourages her teammates to exploit their natural resources.

"I think they'll be successful in that genre of marketing. I think Hope and Alex [Morgan] both bring that level of sex appeal, if you will, to the sport," Wambach said. "I think Mia brought a level of that as well. She'd probably be the first one to say that's not true, but I think you have to take advantage of the things you have.

"To be part of the 'DWTS' cast, for [Solo], I don't understand anybody who thinks that could be wrong because she's doing more for the game than maybe any of the men have even done in terms of popularity and getting the face out there and our team's name out there."

Solo, whose image was ubiquitous in print and on television during and after the World Cup, said she has declined offers to pose for various men's magazines. Finding the right opportunities, she said, is crucial for furthering her goal of changing images about femininity and athleticism.

"I have not really used sex to sell because I think you can really embrace being the athlete first," she said. "I'm not saying I won't do other magazines, but for me, right now, the most important thing for me and my fans is to embrace the athlete in me, so I agreed to do ESPN The Magazine because they really illustrate the athletic body and they celebrate it.''

And in doing so, athletes such as Solo, Patrick and Venus and Serena Williams may finally reconstruct the paradigm of what is considered appropriate for female athletes.

"It's kind of the athletic equivalent of Madonna, and you look at what Madonna did: She used sex appeal and sexuality as part of her brand and she did it in a way where she felt in control and she used it to maximize her success," McDaniel said. "So you could look at someone like Hope Solo and say, 'Well, this is perfectly in line with what any other entertainer could do,' and then there's kind of a double-edged sword with sexism. You could say she's just objectifying women, but you could also say, 'Well, wait a second, Hope Solo is a person just like any other male athlete, and she's an independent woman and an independent business person.'"

Solo and Wambach remain committed, they say, to soccer first, most immediately repeating as gold medalists in next year's Summer Olympics, then making another World Cup run in 2015. The fact that their sport is a sport first and less a vocation -- given the financial struggles of women's professional soccer domestically -- seems to fundamentally affect that mindset.

Questions about maximizing their personal income opportunities mesh with the chance to improve the profile of women's soccer in the United States. The "give back," it seems, is a big deal.

"I'd rather be sitting on Hermosa Beach taking a rest," Wambach said, "but there's a really short period of time the light shines so bright on women's soccer, and one is the World Cup and the other is the Olympics, and I have to remind myself this is the thing I want to be a part of. And if it is my goal to leave this game better than I found it, I really need to keep dedicating [myself] not only [to] the time I have off but to these appearances and whatnot."

That, in turn, seems to impact Wambach's approach to endorsements.

"Trying to max out every last opportunity, that's just not how she's wired," said Wambach's agent, Dan Levy, of Wasserman. "She's wired to be true to her teammates, be true to herself, family and friends and appreciate the fact she had the opportunity. Sure, she's making some money and working with some companies that suit her style."

If her business continues to trend like the past few months, Solo eventually could approach the pantheon of female earners. According to an August 2010 Forbes study, Sharapova led all female athletes with more than $23 million in endorsement earnings in the previous 12 months. Her portfolio includes Nike (an eight-year deal worth up to $70 million), Canon, Tiffany and Sony. Serena Williams ($20.2 million), sister Venus ($15.4 million), Patrick ($12 million) and South Korean figure skater Kim Yu-Na ($9.7 million) followed.

Joining that group will be difficult, Shabelman said. Olympic athletes and soccer players are generally in the public consciousness for narrower windows than those in sports with yearly professional leagues, making the job of perpetuating their exposure and marketability a challenge.

That is why "DWTS" is so valuable as a launching point.

"It takes a little bit of the seasonality away from her," Shabelman said of Solo. "… What 'Dancing with the Stars' does is put her out with a different audience, puts her out in front of millions of people on a weekly basis, and a group of people who have only seen a different side of her, wearing her gloves, in a soccer uniform. They're going to see her in a dress, dressed up and made up and looking very beautiful. That's going to help and put her on a different level of the national stage that she has been so far or even what she would be in the Olympics."

Shabelman said Solo has another intangible plus: her distinctive name.

"You don't want to downplay her accomplishments, but it helps she has a cool, catchy name," he said. "Think Picabo Street. Very successful, but a cool, catchy name. Tiger Woods, obviously with a tremendous talent, but that name had a nice ring to it."

Ultimately, Solo said, she wants to be understood, not branded. It's working so far. Four years ago she was labeled as selfish and arrogant after blasting coach Greg Ryan for benching her before a 4-0 loss to Brazil in the 2007 Women's World Cup. Now she is a media and marketing favorite, proving the public is willing to forgive, or at least forget -- or perhaps has more of a taste for candor.

"I am not politically correct, but that's why I have my fans and I have my critics," Solo said. "Over time, people realize all I want is what's best for my sport and for my team.

"It's not being fake. So when we talk about my brand, it's all about being true to who you are and not losing sight of that because you're on a television show or because you're in a woman's team sport where everyone wants you to be politically correct and the girls next door. It's a fake image everyone else wants you to portray."

Apparently, the public likes what it is seeing.