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Monday, March 10, 2003
All hail the new queen

By Darren Rovell
Special to Page 2

Jennie Finch isn't related to Sidd Finch, but she arrived in the national spotlight two weeks ago much in the same way Sidd did nearly 18 years ago.

Jennie Finch
Jennie Finch's name is now much more recognizable than it was last month.
Although Sidd, who could throw a baseball 168 mph, turned out to be a Sports Illustrated hoax, Jennie's leap into the consciousness of the sports fan might have been just as improbable.

Before making two appearances on Page 2's "Hottest Sports Personality Poll," the pitcher for the USA Softball women's national team wasn't well-known enough to make any water cooler chat. But, with nearly 200,000 votes tallied in a head-to-head finals showdown with perennial Page 2 favorite Anna Kournikova, Jennie defeated the heavily favored Russian hottie easily, taking more than 60 percent of the vote.

An all-out Jennie Finch Googlefest ensued. Searches for her on Feb. 25, the day she won the first ESPN.com poll in the round of 16, were more than 300 times greater than the number of searches for her since the beginning of the year, said Google spokeswoman Eileen Rodriguez. Columnists from around the country were suddenly penning odes to her. Case in point, Denver Post columnist Woody Paige, who in one breathless sentence during ESPN's "Around the Horn" told viewers that Finch "is tall, she is blonde, she is smart, she is beautiful and she is America."

Finch's victory could not be ignored.

Kournikova has consistently earned more than $10 million a year; she had topped every single Page 2 poll she was involved in; she has publications everywhere panting after her to be its cover girl -- including Penthouse, which was so desperate it announced topless photos of her inside one issue last year despite the fact that the woman in the photos didn't even resemble the Russian tennis star.

But nothing lasts forever. Although still hot -- many watched every minute of her "Making of the Anna Kournikova Calendar" on ESPN in December -- a few observers and even some one-time fans are wondering if Kournikova is close to jumping the shark. Without one WTA singles title during a seven-year career, was Kournikova in danger of fading in the face of a real challenge from a gorgeous female athlete, perhaps Maria Sharapova or Daniela Hantuchova, who could look great and win?

Jennie Finch
Jennie will cap off a whirlwind couple of years in Athens.
Given her looks and her winning percentage, the 6-foot-1 Finch might "have next." At the University of Arizona, her NCAA-record streak of 60 consecutive wins made her a two-time national player of the year and helped the Wildcats win the championship in 2001. And since there are few well-known American Olympic athletes capable of dominating the endorsement world, marketers say Finch has a shot of capitalizing even before she makes appearances in Athens next August.

"The world is just beginning to find out who Jennie Finch is," said her agent, Gregg Clifton. "She doesn't have the pro-league forum to be showcased like others can, but she can still be in the public eye."

Indeed, Finch -- who was also voted "Best Dressed" at last year's ESPY Awards -- will not garner much on-field attention over the next year and a half, but critics note that fans haven't seen much of Kournikova, either. Last year, she bowed out in the first round of every high-profile tournament, and she has only played one singles match this season.

So what are the chances that Finch take over as queen of the premier woman-athlete endorsers?

"It will be a challenge to continually get Jennie out there," said Gil Pagovich, a partner in Maxximum Marketing, who believes fans are tiring of an unsuccessful Kournikova. "But if she is able to go the modeling and broadcasting route and stay visible, her cash register could definitely keep ringing."

Already, Finch has been garnering plenty of attention from major-leaguers at spring training while filming segments as a correspondent for "This Week In Baseball." Anaheim Angels reliever Troy Percival told her he couldn't catch her pitches, while Mariners outfielder Mike Cameron and manager Bob Melvin took swings and whiffed. She also has an agreement in principle to serve as an analyst for ESPN's coverage of the Women's College World Series in May and the Little League Softball World Series in August.

Jennie Finch
Not many male athletes get their own logo.
Finch's only endorsement thus far is with Mizuno, which signed her to a complete head-to-toe deal in September. Mizuno's complete line of Finch items includes a signature bat and glove, shoes and a clothing line.

"She's really someone that we feel can transcend the game of fast pitch," said Jeff Fiorini, the company's vice president of the diamond sports division.

Olympic sponsors or companies that want to use the Olympics to market their product might soon consider Finch. Some other natural fits would include cosmetics, shampoo, suntan lotion, cars built for speed and any product that offers fast relief, said Bob Dorfman, sports analyst for Pickett Advertising.

"Maybe we've hit the apex with Kournikova, and her overexposure and lack of play has finally caught up with her," said Bob Williams, president of Burns Sports, a sports marketing firm that named Kournikova the fourth most desired endorser in 2002. "Finch is going to have a good Q Rating off this poll, and if she can parlay that into deals with companies who are interested in following the trend of investing in Olympians before the Games instead of after them, then she could be in a good position."

One great sign for Finch: All over the world, sociologists are debating whether the poll was a turning point in pop culture history.

"When Brandi Chastain took her shirt off after the 1999 World Cup victory, it was a spontaneous moment," said sports sociologist Jay Coakley, author of "Sports in Society." "ESPN.com orchestrated this moment, much in the way Fox orchestrates reality television moments, and I think it does make a difference."

Plus, Coakley admits, "For the people that have visited Anna's Web site 100 times over the past four years, it's possible they are ready to look at someone else."

Ben Sturner, the executive producer of Kournikova's official Web site, Kournikova.com, isn't so sure Coakley is right.

"This poll was more of a one-time thing," Sturner said. "Anna has more staying power in the global community."

Others point out that Finch's gain isn't necessarily Kournikova's loss because Finch plays a team sport that will get domestic corporate interest and Kournikova plays an individual sport that draws on international audiences.

It's too early to say if Finch is a Maxim cover girl, said Mike Hammer, executive editor of the magazine, who points out that cover girls make it "thanks to their community service and good grasp of calculus."

Jennie Finch
Could Jennie's wedding end the fantasy?
"You need to be pretty well-known in the entertainment industry," Hammer said. "If it were just about good looks, we would have a lot more lap dancers (on the cover)."

In any case, Maxim readers need to put their dreams on hold, because Finch isn't sure she's ready for Maxim-style "exposure."

"I can't see myself doing something like that," Finch said. "But I would love to get into the beauty industry, so if the endorsements are there, we'll see what happens. I love makeup, I love clothes, I'm a typical girly-girl. So that would definitely be a lot of fun for me. But I think you can do that and still maintain a respectable athletic persona."

Kournikova was able to stay marketable in part because she engaged in high-profile relationships, but never got married -- or so we thought until Sergei Fedorov recently told The Hockey News that they were once hitched.

That might be one of the only marketing negatives for Finch, given that she is set to wed minor-league pitcher Casey Daigle this fall.

"If Finch is no longer eligible, it might ruin the fantasy of it all," Dorfman said.

Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at Darren.rovell@espn3.com. He is co-author of a new book, "On the Ball: What You Can Learn About Business From America's Sports Leaders."