How tennis star Maria Sharapova became the world’s top-paid female athlete

Maria Sharapova is the world’s top-paid female athlete, making $22m last year with endorsements from the likes of Evian and Porsche. At the bank she eclipses her rival, Serena Williams, who tends to win their on-court matchups.

Maria Sharapova is in a pretty good mood for someone who might be about to lose a tournament. It is mid-March and she has just made the two-hour drive from her beachfront home in Los Angeles to the desert town of Indian Wells, California, the site of the BNP Paribas Open. The tournament is owned by Larry Ellison, the software mogul and seventh-richest person in the world (net worth: US$51.6 billion). In the past five years, through $100 million of upgrades and the help of sponsors such as Rolex and Emirates, he has turned it into one of the premier stops on the men’s and women’s tours.

“It’s a bit more personal for me to come here,” Sharapova, 28, says of Indian Wells. “I have a lot of friends and family who come to watch.”

At a pre-match press conference, Sharapova, in black-and-white exercise pants and a billowy grey tank top, handles questions gracefully. At the time she was holding steady in the No 2 spot in the women’s rankings. Few people in the history of the game have struck the ball as cleanly as she does from both sides of the court, and at 188 centimetres, she has the reach and athleticism to thrive on both hard and grass courts. And yet she has spent her career in the shadow of Serena Williams, the No 1 player in the world.

Second place has its consolations, though, especially if you are tall and blonde. Sharapova is the highest-paid female athlete in the world, according to Forbes, and she has topped the list for the past decade. She made $22m from endorsements last year, including an eight-year, $70m pact with Nike, a five-year contract with Evian, and deals with Cole Haan, Tag Heuer and other brands. Williams, who also has a deal with Nike, as well as one with Gatorade, lags behind by more than $10m each year.

Luxury goods

While a tennis player may grow up in a rough part of Los Angeles (Williams) or in the shadow of a nuclear meltdown (Sharapova), somehow the game maintains an aura of pearls and polo horses, and luxury brands love it. The sport’s audience is not as big as that of football or basketball, but it is just as global – and vastly richer. At the BNP Paribas Open, almost 90 per cent of attendees are college graduates, and 70 per cent of them have household incomes in excess of $100,000. At the US Open, the average household income of fans is $156,000.

“Tennis, like horse riding, golf, or sailing, is associated by the wider public with glamour, wealth and savoir-faire,” says Luca Solca, an analyst with Exane BNP Paribas who specialises in the luxury sector.

Not long after Indian Wells – where she was upset in the fourth round by the Italian player Flavia Pennetta – Sharapova is in Florida for the Miami Open, at a cocktail party sponsored by Porsche.

The occasion is her second year as the company’s global brand ambassador, and she arrives in a black Panamera, a kind of sports sedan, driven by her agent, Max Eisenbud of IMG, who has represented her since she was 12. Getting out, Sharapova towers over Mr Eisenbud, a 41-year-old from New Jersey.

Sharapova touches the car affectionately for the photographers. She looks like a model at an auto show, but Viktoria Wohlrapp, a senior marketing manager for Porsche, says that is not why they hired her. Porsche is the most profitable auto brand in the world, but 85 per cent of its customers are men. The company has been plotting how to sell more cars to women for years, and management says it hopes that having a prominent female athlete associated with the brand might help correct the gender imbalance. So it signed Sharapova to a three-year deal.

In a floral dress and bright yellow high heels, Sharapova is starting to sweat. “Get her a tissue,” Eisenbud quietly instructs a public relations person. Sharapova discreetly dabs her chin and cheeks. A few minutes later, her promotional duties finished, she says she was a Porsche fan long before the company hired her. “I love the feeling of being in a sports vehicle,” she says. “I know it’s quite rare for a woman, but it’s such a powerful feeling.”

A week later, with some unexpected downtime – thanks to a second-round loss to the Australian Daria Gavrilova – Sharapova tweets a photo from behind the wheel of a Porsche (#girlstrip, #horsepower) to her 1.58 million followers.

Can Sharapova actually sell cars? “That’s very hard to say,” Ms Wohlrapp admits. “But for us, it’s an image thing. It was very important to find someone who matches the brand, and we feel like Maria and Porsche is a good thing.”

The Harvard Business School professor Anita Elberse, who wrote a case study in 2010 about the building of Brand Sharapova, has found that a celebrity endorsement can boost a company’s bottom line by as much as 4 per cent.

With a brand like Nike, the Sharapova effect is relatively easy to measure – the company sells a line of Sharapova tennis apparel (designed by her), and the demand for those items is an indication of the value she creates. With watches and cars, it is harder to gauge the impact. But Ms Elberse says that luxury brands are deriving tangible benefits from sponsorship deals. “These companies wouldn’t be doing it if they didn’t see some value.”

Businesswoman

On occasion Sharapova has been willing to put her money where her mouth is.

She started Sugarpova in 2012, which makes candy gummy lips and tennis ball chewing gum, and has since branched out into clothing and fashion accessories. She spent $500,000 of her own money to fund the company, which sold 30,000 bags of candy online in its first six months.

Also, she has spoken up in defence of equal pay for female players at the four Grand Slam tournaments. Wimbledon in 2007 became the last of the Grand Slams with equal pay for women. The French Open had equalised the year before, and the Australian and US Opens well before that.

In 2012, after the Frenchman Gilles Simon opined at Wimbledon that male players should be paid more on the grounds that their matches were more entertaining, Sharapova shot back.

“Look, we women have fought so long to get equal prize money. It was a big challenge and nobody really supported us. We’re all really proud of it, and we continue to build the sport and make it bigger. No matter what anyone says, or the criticisms that we get, I’m sure there are a few more people who watch my matches than his.”

Williams echoed Sharapova’s point: “Definitely a lot more people are watching Maria than Simon … She’s way hotter than he is.”

Way richer too.

Simon is not among the five male players with the highest endorsement value. Roger Federer leads at $52m, followed by Rafael Nadal, $30m; Novak Djokovic, $21m; Andy Murray, $15m; and Japan’s Kei Nishikori, $9m. On the women’s side, the next four after Sharapova’s $22m are China’s Li Na, $18m; Williams, $11m; Denmark’s Caroline Wozniacki, $9.5m; and Belarus’ Victoria Azarenka, $7.5m. Sharapova and Li were the only women in the top 100 earners across all sports.

Start-up phase

Sharapova’s upbringing was far from a world of Porsches and country clubs. She had a hard upbringing. Her parents fled Siberia four months after the Chernobyl explosion, as radiation began to wash over their town of Nyagan. During the next few years, Sharapova bounced around Russia. When she was six years old, Martina Navratilova spotted her on a tennis court in the resort city of Sochi and recommended that the youngster gather her things and head off to the Nick Bollettieri academy in Florida.

Her mother could not get a visa, so Sharapova and her father, Yuri, started their new life alone. During Sharapova’s adolescence, her father worked several jobs at a time – doing construction, sweeping the floors in grocery stores – to try to pay the academy tuition. Because of his schedule, they rarely saw each other during the day, with Yuri leaving meals out for his daughter to warm up. “I spent a lot of time on my own,” she said in an ESPN documentary about her childhood.

But their plan worked, and by the early 2000s, Sharapova was a sensation. She had the looks of her Russian compatriot and one-time phenom Anna Kournikova, and a better game.

She also had a determination that Kournikova could never seem to muster. Sharapova crushed powerful line drives from the back of the court, emphasising the authority of her shots with an exuberant grunt. At just 17, she beat Williams in the 2004 Wimbledon final. A US Open title followed soon thereafter. She has since won the Australian Open twice and the French Open once, bringing her Grand Slam wins to five.

Sharapova’s career prize money stands at $35,071,334, including $2,536,132 this year alone. When Wimbledon begins on June 29 she will again be among the favourites. First place would add another $2.8m to her career earnings and help sustain her as the world’s richest female athlete as she marches relentlessly on.

Process

In the months since Indian Wells, Sharapova has slipped to fourth in the women’s rankings. Still she maintains an intense training schedule during the offseason and manages to make it to the final rounds of most tournaments. Those endless losses to Williams might have destroyed the confidence of anyone else, but Sharapova continues to chase her nemesis.

After every point, whether she has won or lost, Sharapova does the same thing. She walks back behind the baseline, faces the stands, adjusts her strings, then flips around to the net like a soldier coming to attention. She makes a fist as a subtle grimace travels across her face. Then she tosses the ball to serve and starts all over again.

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