|Monday, February 3
Are Venus and Serena bad for tennis?
By Darren Rovell
Five years ago, Richard Williams sat down to hammer out the details of a five-year endorsement deal for his youngest daughter, Serena. Although she was ranked 99th in the world and only had one tournament victory at the time, Richard Williams wanted to make sure the contract included performance bonuses when his daughter ranked in the Top 10.
Today, as the deal nears its expiration, Puma is expected to find itself in a bidding war for Serena. Winner of four straight Grand Slam events and now ranked No. 1 in the world, she is expected to command as much as $10 million a year for her next endorsement deal. That would trump her sister Venus' shoe and apparel deal by $2 million a year and could help her eclipse the off-the-court income of Anna Kournikova, who annually earns between $12 million to $14 million despite never winning a WTA singles title.
It was more than two years ago that Venus began racking up lucrative endorsement deals. Victories at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 2000 led to a five-year, $40-million contract with Reebok, the largest single endorsement deal ever signed by a female athlete. Success in recent years, including her defense of the Wimbledon and the U.S. Open titles in 2001, made Venus the hottest property in tennis.
That is, until her sister surpassed her as the world's most dominant women's tennis player.
Just as she did in the Australian Open women's final on Jan. 25, Serena has faced her older sister in the championship round of four straight Grand Slam events and, with victories in each, she has now surpassed Venus' total of four Slam titles.
Sports marketers have tried to capitalize on their dominance of women's tennis, and Avon, Wrigley and McDonald's collectively have invested more than $20 million to use the sisters as marketing vehicles. But with several sponsorship categories still available, including choice of beverage, car and financial institution, Venus and Serena figure to make millions more.
While those who have bought into the sisters insist they are one of the best values in sports, other industry insiders aren't so sure.
Despite complaints by their father two years ago that fans at a Masters Series event in Indian Wells, Calif., rained racial slurs toward him and his daughters after Venus withdrew from the tournament, race does not seem to play a factor in their marketing. Like Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods, Venus and Serena are looked upon by the general population simply as top athletes in, arguably, the most popular woman's sport in the world.
Ironically, though, Schinman says their dominance and, more important, their seeming indifference when they play each other may diminish their value for companies that have a stake in the two consistent grand slam finalists. Though they played a spirited finals at the Aussie Open, they have been criticized in the past for lacking intensity when they meet each other on the court.
"When they play each other in the finals, there's no fire there," Schinman said. "Because no matter what, it's a win for the family. A Grand Slam final should feel like a war but given their apparent lack of caring for who wins, it seems like an exhibition."
"They are definitely icons and are the best women's tennis has to offer," said Craig Tartasky, president of marketing firm Vertical Sports & Entertainment. "But I'm just not sure they resonate and sell in the same way Tiger Woods or even Andre Agassi does."
Talk of racial discord between the Williamses and other players on the WTA Tour has subsided in recent years, as more attention has turned on whether one sister has enough desire to beat the other. ESPN tennis analyst MaliVai Washington, who believes it's good for the top two players in the world to continually face each other in major finals, says fans are looking for more out of the Williams sisters.
"In any great rivalry, fans want there to be bad blood," Washington said. "They want the opponents to give you the feeling that they want to shove a ball down the other's throat and kick the daylights out of them. But Serena isn't as emotional when she's playing Venus, and Venus gives the appearance that she doesn't mind losing, saying that she's happy that Serena is No. 1. Do you think she would say that about Jennifer Capriati?"
The rivalry that grew from 14 Grand Slam finals matches between Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova propelled interest in them among tennis fans. Tiger Woods' domination on the PGA Tour is refreshed by a challenging course or an unexpected challenger, and interest in Michael Jordan never waned during the Chicago Bulls' championship reign perhaps because they faced five different teams in six NBA Finals.
Meanwhile, awareness of the two sisters, among the general population, is at an all-time high. Serena is now recognized by 72 percent of the general population, while 73 percent said they were familiar with Venus, according to Marketing Evaluations, a research firm that produces "Q Scores." That's better than Kournikova, who was recognized by 58 percent of the population despite the fact she remains among the most searched names on the Internet.
"How would Venus and Serena be getting all these endorsement deals if they didn't help sell?" said Bob Williams, president of Burns Sports, a sports marketing firm whose survey of top product endorsers in 2002 placed Venus at seventh and Serena in eighth. "Marketers want to be guaranteed as much exposure as they can get and the two sisters have now become as automatic in the finals of Grand Slams as Michael Jordan did in the '90s with the Chicago Bulls."
Of course, companies that have signed Venus and Serena to endorsement deals say the criticism about their effectiveness is unfounded. Many conduct their own market research before forking over multi-million-dollar deals, but hold the information close to the vest.
"Allen Iverson might be more important to Reebok in the United States, but Venus Williams is more important around the world," said Micky Pant, chief marketing officer of the shoe brand that Venus has been wearing since her early teens.
"It's not like every time you see them in the Grand Slam finals everyone says, 'I gotta go out and buy a leather jacket afterward,' " said Joel Waller, chairman and CEO of Wilson's Leather, which reportedly pays Venus based on a percentage of sales from her own line of leather products. "But every time the sisters play at that level it makes the association that much better."
Which would explain why the Williams sisters are seen almost as often off the court as they are on it. In August, Wrigley used them to launch Doublemint's newly packaged, longer-lasting gum. McDonald's used them to introduce its Dollar Menu in October. And Venus and Serena will appear in an Avon brochure that will be sent to 17 million women in the spring. "I can't tell you that our alliance with Venus and Serena directly sells more gum, but the relationship definitely reinforces our brand in the mind of consumers," said Doublemint spokesperson Kelly McGrail.
Individually, Venus presently earns a reported $12.9 million off the court, and Serena is close behind at $7.8 million. That places them among the most coveted endorsers in the sports arena, with the likes of Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal, but still far behind Tiger Woods. He commands $20 million a year from Nike alone and more than $60 million from all his endorsements.
For now, officials at International Management Group, which represent both sisters, say they aren't concerned that the public is tiring of Williams' appearances in Grand Slam finals and contend that companies are getting their value for the price they are paying to sign them.
"They are getting bigger deals, and corporations -- especially in this business environment -- aren't trying to be charitable," Linda Dozoretz said. "Most of these companies have to report to shareholders."
Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at Darren.firstname.lastname@example.org. He is the author of a new book, "On the Ball: What You Can Learn About Business From America's Sports Leaders."