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U.S. Open marketability debate: Serena vs. Sharapova

Serena Williams, left, and Maria Sharapova. Serena Williams, left, and Maria Sharapova.
Serena Williams, left, and Maria Sharapova. Photographs by Getty Images

During the first few days of the 2015 U.S. Open, tennis fans were still discussing the surprise last-minute exit of Maria Sharapova, who withdrew from the tournament because of an injury.

Yes, the year’s biggest story was Serena Williams and her push to become the fourth woman ever to complete a calendar grand slam (win all four of the sport’s Majors in one year) by winning this Open—a push that ended Friday in a crushing defeat that did not take away from the achievement of how close she came. But Sharapova, who is one of tennis’s most recognizable faces—if not always its top contender—is always in the popular conversation as well. This year, she was absent.

Amidst these facts, ESPN sports business guy Darren Rovell tweeted a controversial observation:

It is true that Sharapova gets significantly more in endorsement money each year than Williams. In our most recent Fortunate 50 athlete earnings list (with Sports Illustrated) Sharapova was the highest-ranked woman on the international list, with an estimated $20 million in annual endorsement money from deals with Nike, Evian, Tag Heuer, Samsung, and others. This year her haul has likely been even larger, thanks to beefed-up ad campaigns from some of her sponsors, the growth of her candy company Sugarpova, and the launch of her own mobile app. (Forbes now pegs her endorsement payouts at $23 million.) She is, in fact, the highest-paid female athlete on the planet.

Williams, on the other hand, landed at No. 38 on our U.S. list (she and Sharapova were the only women to make the ranking). She grabs just half the endorsement money of Sharapova, with sponsors like Nike, Wilson, Gatorade, Beats By Dre, Mission Athletecare and Sheets energy strips. (Many of her sponsors, like Beats, have noticeably amped up their advertising around Williams during this U.S. Open.) Notably, her earnings on the court were higher than her endorsement earnings, which was not the case for Sharapova.

This year, Williams has won $9.8 million on the court to Sharapova’s $3.3 million—three times as much. And yet, Sharapova remains more in-demand from marketers.

Rovell was right to point out that many fans don’t understand that there’s a difference between how much an athlete wins and whether a brand is interested in signing him or her as a spokesperson. And he has a point: the athlete endorsement market has, for years, elevated women like Sharapova. But when Rovell’s ESPN colleague Bomani Jones, and others, suggested that the reason the market “works” this way is perhaps due to inherent racism, Rovell tweeted that the suggestion is “idiotic.”

To be fair, some point out that it isn’t as though Sharapova is undeserving of the attention. She does often win (she is second in WTA earnings this year, though a far-off second) and she has been praised for her careful management of her businesses and her brand image. Moreover, some point out that the reason brands don’t show Williams enough love is that she is edgy, opinionated, speaks out, behaves as she wishes, and in general does not walk on eggshells—not the type of behavior that most cautious, anxious brands prefer.

But as Williams’s star rises, and as some brands are becoming ever-so-slightly more open to risk in their endorsement choices, many fans reasonably expect the money to shift her way. That hasn’t happened, and it raises a good question of corporate bias. After all, a recent Adobe report ranked Williams as the No. 2 most socially marketable tennis player, man or woman, second only to Roger Federer.

In ESPN’s own suite at the Open, on Day Two of the tournament, the debate was a popular topic of discussion among writers and editors from ESPNW, the company’s vertical focused on women in sports. “I think it’s more of a comment on the sexism of the brands that sign her to those deals,” said Laura Gentile, ESPNW’s founder. “They want her look.” That look is of a skinny, Russian blonde player, as opposed to a curvy, muscular black player. But of course, ESPNW writer Kate Fagan pointed out: isn’t that also inherently racist?

“Look at cosmetic brands,” said Gentile. “They’re still going with models again and again, which I think is just silly.” Gentile points to CoverGirl as a brand that has done it right, mixing it up with spokespeople like Queen Latifah, Pink and Ellen DeGeneres.

This conversation is happening at the right time. It’s a year in which, in tennis, the women’s side is the bigger attraction: the women’s final sold out before the men’s final for the first time. It is also a year in which, in the three biggest men’s sports, women have made strides: the NFL added its first female ref and its first female coach (Jen Welter, whose internship with the Arizona Cardinals has since ended), and the NBA added its second female assistant coach (Nancy Lieberman) and its first female Summer League coach (Becky Hammon). Meanwhile, the UFC fighter Ronda Rousey has had a banner year, dominating her sport and becoming a national phenomenon. Rousey also appeared in many movies and, most recently, made vocal statements about top men’s boxer Floyd Mayweather. (Gentile said of NFL coach Jen Welter that she is “like Ronda and Serena and [U.S. soccer star] Alex Morgan, all blended into one.”)

All of this progress has been a boon to ESPNW, which is still relatively new, and still unknown to many readers of sports journalism. The vertical launched in 2010, and did not have a dedicated web site until 2011. But while it may seem as though things are moving fast, there is more progress to be made if you ask Gentile: “People keep asking me if 10 years from now we won’t need W. I don’t think that’s the right question.”

The audience that ESPNW is addressing won’t go away, Gentile reasons, and will still need to be addressed, despite whatever perceived progress comes. (Indeed, ESPNW is doing some of the most interesting and important work in sports journalism right now: look no further than its recent profile of Christy Mack, an adult film star who was brutally assaulted by her boyfriend, a mixed martial arts fighter.)

Covering these topics, Gentile says, “has never been better. If you come to our site, there has been an obvious change over time in the tone and the way we cover stories. I also think our influence is broader than it ever was.”

Serena Williams’s influence is also at a peak. National outlets are paying more attention to her than ever before and she is arguably making this year’s U.S. Open interesting even to non-tennis fans, thanks to her historic quest at a record.

Will the big brands that invest big money in aligning with female athletes realize this, and wake up?

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