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Thursday, August 30, 2012
Updated: August 31, 12:49 PM ET
A study into The Sharapova Effect

By Jane McManus

NEW YORK -- The ad shows Maria Sharapova, in bright-red lipstick, blowing you a kiss.

With carnival colors and more than a hint of sex appeal, Sharapova trumpets her latest venture, a series of confections that come under the umbrella of Sugarpova.

Maria Sharapova
Maria Sharapova's latest off-court venture? A candy line called "Sugarpova."

"Lips like sugar," reads the tagline for a candy called Flirty.

Sharapova makes money because of her performance on the court, but the far more lucrative part of her career is the side business of endorsements. In a recent 12-month period, Sharapova earned three and a half times her tennis winnings by lending her image to promote products, such as her candy line.

"I think it's connected," said tennis player Ana Ivanovic, when asked about the tension between balancing endorsements and keeping up performance, "because if you don't do well on the court, you're not going to get endorsements, so it's very closely connected."

But a recent study by two economists poses an interesting question: Would beautiful athletes like Ivanovic and Sharapova work as hard at tennis if they didn't have those captivating smiles sought by Madison Avenue?

Min Ahn, a professor of economics at Arizona State University who co-authored the study with Young Hoon Lee, would assert that Sharapova works harder at her tennis game than an average-looking person because she is aware on some level that her attractiveness opens doors to a bigger pot of gold once she wins.

"People appreciate the product of an attractive person more than an unattractive person," said Ahn. "It encourages better-looking people to do better."

This phenomenon is called, wait for it, the Sharapova Effect.

It's something tennis players may be particularly sensitive to in the wake of Anna Kournikova's career. The Russian was a solid player who never won a singles tournament, but whose beauty was worth millions. Eventually, her lack of on-court success made her a bit of a punch line.

Sharapova is the No. 1 woman, and No. 26 overall, on the Forbes list of the 100 top-earning athletes (covering the time period from June 2011 to June 2012). She earned $27.9 million, with $5.9 million coming from tennis winnings. It is worth noting that most of the men on the list earn far more from their sport, while women have to rely on endorsements to climb the rankings. Boxer Wladimir Klitschko, who is No. 24, made $24 million of his $28 million from bouts, and only $4 million from endorsements.

Ahn and Lee's study focused on female golfers, since the two economists come from Korea, where the sport is extremely popular. But there are studies focusing on quarterbacks that find the same kinds of results. Athletes are easy to study because their winnings are a matter of public record, and are based entirely on performance.

Focusing on 16 golfers, Ahn and Lee did a standard blind study to gauge attractiveness. Then, they compared the earnings of women who were deemed "attractive" and those of women deemed less attractive. The attractive women performed better. Why? According to Ahn and Lee, it is because attractive performers are rewarded in ways beyond their compensation from competition. Knowing they have the opportunity to unlock additional avenues of income, gorgeous players actually put in more time to refine excellence in their primary job.

Another way to put it would be to say that your mother was right when she said, "If you work hard at something, the sky is the limit." The caveat being that you already need to be at least a "6" on a scale of 1 to 10.

As for the highest-paid female athletes, seven of the top 10 are tennis players. In order, the 10 are Sharapova, Li Na, Serena Williams, Caroline Wozniacki, Danica Patrick, Victoria Azarenka, figure skater Kim Yu-na, Ivanovic, Agnieszka Radwanska and golfer Yani Tseng.

"Women's tennis, it's quite popular," Ivanovic said. "I think we are doing a great job to represent that girls can still be girls and yet do sports and be very athletic. It's a sport that is played worldwide and I think that's why it's really interesting for people to invest."

Ahn said that although beauty is considered subjective, numerous studies betray the fact that most humans know it when they see it. He was intrigued by Ivanovic's idea that the femininity in tennis, where players wear skirts, makes the players more brand-friendly than, say, female boxers.

Being punched in the face isn't nearly as much fun as being blown a kiss.

Sharapova said she has always liked candy, but never took on a venture as thoroughly as she has Sugarpova.

"I guess I can say it started because I have been a part of so many little things in my career, been a part of collaborations and collections," Sharapova said. "It came to a point where I really wanted to invest my own money into something, make all the final decisions."

Yet, when she was asked if the golden lips she wore as a necklace to Arthur Ashe Kids' Day at the U.S. Open was a logo for the company, she revealed that perhaps she wasn't completely in charge of all the aesthetics.

"It is actually the ad agency [that] gave that to me as a present," Sharapova said. "They're the ones that came out with the lips and all the different logos."

When Sharapova takes care of her business on court, she can delegate the details.