She's 6 feet tall, blonde, beautiful, and at the top of her game. Unfortunately for her commercial prospects, the sport isn't tennis, and she isn't Wimbledon champ and Sports Illustrated cover girl Maria Sharapova. But Jennie Finch, who pitches underhand at 72 mph, is generating plenty of buzz as she heads to Athens with the U.S. Olympic Women's Softball team, a solid favorite to win a gold medal.
Finch has signed on as a spokesperson for companies including Sprint (FON), Bank of America (BAC), Sealy, 24 Hour Fitness Worldwide, and sunglasses brand Boll?. Finch, 23, whose first brush with fame followed 60 straight victories at the University of Arizona, also has a four-year deal with sporting-goods maker Mizuno Corp., worth up to $100,000 a year. Mizuno sells a line of Finch bats, gloves, and shoes.
For Finch and her handlers at sports agency Octagon Worldwide (IPG), the challenge will be to stay hot after the Olympic flame is doused. Even presuming the team wows 'em in Athens, few Olympic heroes have pulled off that trick, especially in sports that virtually disappear between Games.
But Finch's appeal may be the kind that sticks. First off, her timing is impeccable: She's stepping into the spotlight when the universe of potential American Olympic stars is small. Except for swimming phenom Michael Phelps, sprinter Maurice Greene, and the men's basketball and women's soccer teams, the U.S. delegation lacks luster. The men's baseball and soccer teams didn't even qualify for Athens.
Finch's looks are also turning heads. A 2003 ESPN poll anointed the La Mirada (Calif.) native the most attractive female athlete. And Finch is one of People magazine's "50 Most Beautiful People of 2004." Says the homespun fireballer: "The whole sexiness thing -- I don't know if I'm comfortable with that." Finch prefers to let her fastball do the talking. "You can't go into the Olympics thinking: 'If I pitch a no-hitter, [endorsement deals] will happen.' I'm an athlete. If you do the right things on the field, it'll transcend into every part of your career," she says.
Sell-out exhibition games are building interest in Finch and her team, but with the only existing pro-softball league in just its second year, even getting the gold medal won't lead to lucrative playing contracts. Finch estimates "two or three" softballers scratch out a living from the game and endorsement deals.
Finch, who's one of them, also has regular gigs on ESPN's Women's College World Series and as co-host of Major League Baseball's This Week in Baseball. And deals such as her two-year agreement with health chain 24 Hour Fitness will help pay the bills. But more than money is at stake if she can blow away the competition and wind up as America's Olympic sweetheart.
By Mark Hyman