by Karen

When I decided to write an article about the issue of endorsement in tennis, and especially as it relates to the Serena/Sharapova narrative, I was of the view that it was important to not just look at the issue of race, (an important issue), but branding and how that might tell the story of the portfolios of both ladies.

Serena Williams – Annie Liebowitz (New York Times) 

Each time that Forbes or some other entity publishes a list of the top earning female athletes in sports, tennis fans become outraged that Maria Sharapova rules the roost ahead of Serena Williams.  They point to the head to head and the athletic achievement of both women and surmise, quite correctly in my view, that the person who has excelled the most should be the one who is earning more money off the court.  However, this is life, and life works in mysterious ways.  

If one looks at the companies with whom both women partner, you can see that each woman is being sold to a specific target audience

Serena – Vogue 2015 
Sharapova’s Endorsement Portfolio

Nike, Sony Ericsson and Tiffany, Porsche, Tag Heuer, Head, Cole Haan, American Express, Evian

Serena Williams Endorsement Portfolio

(Partners) Mobli, Nike and Kraft Foods, Mission, Sleep Sheets, HSN,  (Sponsors) Nike, Gatorade, Wilson  OPI, BeatsbyDre

It is incredibly difficult to obtain information as to which entity is a sponsor and which is a partner.  On Serena Williams’ website it is very clear which is which.  In the case of Sharapova, one can only assume that most of the companies’ listed on her website are sponsors.

Branding is defined as the art of creating a name, symbol or design that identifies and differentiates a product from other products.  While doing the research for this article, I spoke with Clinton Coleman, a brand manager with GSC Worldwide Management.  GSC are agents for quite a number of athletes, including tennis players.  They represent the one and only Nick Kyrigios.  I reached out to Mr. Coleman to get his thoughts on the issue of branding and sponsorships and what he sees as the difference between what Serena earns and what Sharapova earns.   Mr. Coleman had this to say:

Sponsors are looking for ambassadors that share the same values. Some players are very good at the PR game and get what is expected from their sponsors.”

That led me to start thinking about what Sharapova and Serena are selling.  What are their respective brands? For that, I went and looked at both ladies body of work over the past few years.

Sometimes the best way to tell a brand is to see how the women are portrayed.  I did a search via Google and input the same thing for both women “Maria Sharapova Magazine Cover” and “Serena Williams Magazine Cover”.  The results were telling. 

While most of Serena’s magazine covers focused on her tennis, Sharapova’s magazine covers focused more on beauty and sexiness.  While both women are beautiful and sexy in their own way, they are both also quite accomplished in their respective fields of endeavour, i.e tennis.  Why then does each woman’s branding seem to veer away from their respective fields of endeavour to focus on the beauty and sexiness of one and the dominance in her sport of the other.  This is where the issue of race comes into play and for me, this is not about race, but about the brand that each woman is willing to portray.

As most folks know Serena is a devout Jehovah’s Witness. She might let loose with the occasional  F bomb, but by and large her Christianity is important to her.  I believe this is the reason why, separate and apart from the photographs of Serena on the beach, you will never really see any images, at least paid ones, where Serena is sexed up, as that is not a part of her image and by extension not her brand.  In looking at Serena’s endorsement portfolio we see many brands that tell a tale of a person who is building a career ending portfolio.  She has partnered with HSN to promote her Serena Signature clothing line.  With Mission Care, a company that involves athletes coming together to form a company that provides healthy options to customers. She has also partnered with Sleep Sheets, a company that promotes an organic sleep remedy.

Many will recall that when Sharapova launched SugarPova one of the things that she said was that this was her company.  She used her money to start this venture and there was no input from anyone.  This was her brainchild.  Most of Sharapova’s sponsors are high end companies that pay her to be the face of their products.  They are sold to a certain demographic and I had to do some research on the demographic to which each player is being marketed.

I am told that the average salary of people who watch tennis is US$115,000.00.  I am told that is a salary on the high end scale.  It is to this demographic that Sharapova is being marketed.  The people who buy Porsches, who wear Tag Hauer watches, who drink Evian bottled water and who apparently eat over-priced jellybeans.  Apparently, in order to sell these products to these high earning individuals, it is important to make an accomplished woman look sexy.  Meanwhile, Serena, urban legend that she is, is apparently someone whose brand is not being marketed to the individual(s) who earns US$115,000/annum and this begs the question, why?

This lack of sponsorship dollars catering to a high end clientele could be perceived as racist.  However, it could also be the case that Serena’s branding of herself is in line with her faith, which challenges the market.  Recall that Google search that I did?  For years Serena had issues with her body.  When your body has been mocked for most of your life and when you spend part of your life envying the body of your sister, I can see why the majority of Serena’s body of work does not portray sexiness, but rather the efficiency and dedication to fitness that has now become a hallmark of her brand.  This is not to say that Sharapova does not spend quality time dealing with her own fitness issues, the difference however, is that Sharapova’s brand has never been about tennis, but rather the possibility of whether you can get the person that she is portraying if you buy what she is selling.

Remember that 2004 Wimbledon win over Serena?  As soon as Sharapova had won that match, she took out her mobile phone (a Motorola at the time) and called her mother. Whether that was something that was planned or not, we will never know, but that was the last time that I can recall that Sharapova was marketed for her accomplishment in tennis, rather than for how she looks (2006 Canon power shot is best left forgotten).

Branding is not only something that fixates on the sexiness of the women, but the men as well. Take Roger Federer for instance.  Federer has been marketed as a classy debonair player.  His list of endorsements have him driving around in a Mercedes Benz looking very suave.  Now that he has children, his brand is geared towards the busy professional dad with cute cuddly children in tow.  Djokovic on the other hand is marketed as a more rough and cut version of Federer.  His car sponsor, Peugeot is hardly what one would call a classy vehicle, as it is more geared towards the working class.  A comparison of Djokovic and Federer’s tennis shows the distinction in style, which has transferred itself to their respective brands.

In relation to Serena her brand is all about partnering with companies that promote a healthy lifestyle.  She has invested in areas that are geared towards building an investment portfolio.  

From buying a stake in the Miami Dolphins (a decision I am sure she is probably regretting), to being part of the very innovative MasterClass series of instructional video, Serena’s list of partners/sponsors shows her intent for life beyond tennis.  

My challenge is to look beyond the dollar amounts and focus on the quality and the content of each woman’s respective portfolios.  Each tells a particular story. Serena tells us about an athlete that has always gone against the grain or challenged mainstream expectations and standards of womanhood.  While Sharapova’s hints at her ability to exist within these occasionally limiting constraints for female athletes.

Do you agree with the way how either woman is being branded.  Sound off in the comments or hit me up on Twitter.  


  1. Karen, I love your insight here and on the podcast.

    I don't know if I agree or disagree with either woman's branding, but I understand it. While Sharapova's is playbook, Williams has had to really consider many issues. I had always wondered what factors weighed heavily in Ms. Williams' business decisions outside race and opportunities. I had never considered religion though she has publically discussed her faith. It was smart of her and her team to not conflate her personality or anything else with her brand. However, I don't think her branding, dominance/career ending portfolio,is solely because of religion. Madison Avenue has never placed a lot of effort on the POC markets and I would not be surprised if the offers she received especially at the beginning of her career were disrespectful monetarily and not of the calibre she should have been presented. The case could be made that like Sharapova, her brand is simply a reflection of the marketplace. In fact, I wonder if she is diversifying or redefining her brand now. Of late her magazine covers have been as much about her beauty as it is her fitness/greatness.

    I'd love to see her be the first woman athlete to partner with a car company. If she wins or when she wins ☺ I would not be surprised if we see an explosion of partnership and sponsorships. I want to see more creative marketing and branding for her. That is beyond the liquor and trash clothing brands we see in the hip-hop game.

    How do you think her brand will change post career?


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