If you're a sports star, you're not guaranteed to do well on Dancing With the Stars, but it definitely helps. Five of the past 13 winners of have been athletes. Four athletes have been runners-up. Nine of the 14 Finals have featured athletes. Only two athletes have ever been eliminated first from DWTS — Season 13's Ron Artest/Metta World Peace and Season 14's Martina Navratilova. But it's not like viewers are falling out of love with athletes; Season 13's Hope Solo almost made the Finals and Metta's pro partner, Peta Murgatroyd, is now heading into the Season 14 Finals with a different athlete, Donald Driver.
What (usually) helps athletes do well on DWTS? Here are a few of the obvious and maybe not so obvious things working in their favor.
Physical stamina: It always helps to be in shape and even the retired athletes on DWTS are usually in good shape. A great deal is expected from the contestants' bodies in a short period of time. One week you have to be slow and graceful, then bouncing with lots of pressure on knees, then lifts, tricks, sharp movements — anything can go wrong to the dancers' bodies and often does. Athletes are used to injuries and tend to have a high tolerance for pain. Plus, as the season goes on, they are expected to dance two and then three or four routines a week. Usually that's when some of the unconditioned contestants show fatigue and start dropping points while the Kristi Yamaguchis, Apolo Anton Ohnos and Shawn Johnsons never lose steam. Athletes have the discipline and conditioning to pace themselves for extended physical competitions. It's what they do.
Competitive drive: Athletes always have their eyes on the prize. DWTS is like a dancing Super Bowl or dancing Olympics, so it just naturally favors athletic contestants. Most actors and pop stars aren’t used to direct competition and tend to have more fragile egos when it comes to setbacks and less discipline when it comes to staying on track. It doesn’t just take drive to succeed on DWTS, it also takes a marathon mindset to stay focused and steady through the ups and downs of success and failure. If an athlete has an off week on DWTS, it’s like losing a game. It stinks but you know you can’t wallow and feel sorry for yourself, you set new goals and work harder to reach higher. By the same token, if you win a game you don’t rest on your laurels, you set new goals and reach higher. Athletes are also usually team players who know how to work well with others. On DWTS the pro partner is also the coach and athletes know how to take direction from their coaches.
Established fan bases: Sports fans are fiercely loyal and already tapped into that “us against them” mindset that you don’t get from, say, an actor’s fan base. They always want their team to win and if someone from their team is competing on DWTS, it’s easy to get them to go from cheering mode to voting mode. You could argue that an athlete’s 10,000 Twitter followers are more valuable than, say, a reality TV star’s 100,000 Twitter followers because the team loyalty factor is already built in — and you don’t know how many of those 10,000 are just following the realty TV star to rubber-neck at his or her crazy tweets. Hines Ward had Steeler Nation backing him to a win on Season 12 and it’s possible Packer Nation could do the same for Donald Driver this season. Those fans are in addition to any new DWTS viewers who fall in love with the athletes during the season or are already supporting the athlete’s pro partner. It adds up.
Out-of-comfort-zone appreciation: It’s funny how many football players, in particular, get credit for being out of their comfort zone on DWTS. Yeah, they aren’t used to ballroom dancing, but they get to the Finals as often as pop stars and usually get more credit than people who already have “entertainment” experience. This show *is* an athlete’s comfort zone — and every sports event is a “live” show in itself, so you could call that performance experience. But it’s endearing to see a big football player like Emmitt Smith do a graceful ballroom dance, so judge Carrie Ann Inaba giggles and dubs him “Twinkle Toes” and America gives him the win over Mario Lopez, who looked like he was born on a dance floor.
Media savvy: Athletes who have risen to celebrity status are often used to a mic being thrust in their faces for a quick soundbite after a game. They know what kind of positive, innocuous things to say. Granted, not everyone does. For every pitch-perfect Olympian giving just the right mini pep talk, you have your Chad Ochocincos and Hope Solos who just say whatever they want and you can either laugh, gasp, roll your eyes or agree — they don’t care. But if you look back on DWTS celebs who have been given "diva" or "divo" status, mouthing off in rehearsals, whining about their scores or how they are being portrayed, it's rarely the athletes — especially not the Olympians like Apolo, Shawn, Kristi and Evan Lysacek. They are just too well trained to say anything that would offend anyone, and that wholesome family-friendly vibe tends to gel with voters.
Will these factors help NFL star Donald Driver take home the Mirror Ball next week? We’ll have to tune in and find out.
Watch the next new episode of DWTS on Monday, May 21 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on ABC.
Gina Carbone is a contributing writer at Wetpaint Entertainment. Follow her on Twitter @ginacarbone.
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