Sunday, March 16
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Serena cashes in
By Charles Elmore, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 16, 2003
In her teenage years, Serena Williams cheerfully played a costarring role in the family talent show that changed tennis. After four straight Grand Slam wins, 21-year-old Serena is enjoying some time on center stage, talking deals that could make her the highest-paid endorser in the history of women's sports.
She is already No. 1 in the world and the reigning Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year. Now it's time to conduct a little business.
Time to sell Close-Up toothpaste, not just package deals with her sister Venus for Avon cosmetics or McDonald's Dollar Menu. Time to take a $1.4 million place in Los Angeles, a part-time retreat from the family home in Palm Beach Gardens, and take a turn at acting on TV (cameo on ABC's My Wife and Kids). Time to receive a delivery of 20 roses from football star Keyshawn Johnson -- just give him the darn divorce decree. (Just friends, Keyshawn says). And as her Puma deal winds down, maybe time to negotiate the largest single endorsement contract ever for a female athlete, perhaps $50 million with Nike.
That would eclipse a record $40 million deal with Reebok by Venus.
What with all the business meetings, there was barely time to talk about tennis on a conference call Friday, including the Nasdaq-100 tournament this week in Key Biscayne.
"I've just done three photo shoots in three days," Serena said. "Whenever I have time, I'm doing photo shoots, or I'm doing commercials."
Look for her on the cover of a Parade magazine near you.
"I forgot I did that," Serena said. "I've done so many."
For its part, footwear- and apparel-maker Nike is playing down reports of a five-year, $10 million-per contract in the works.
"There's no contract or negotiations I'm aware of," a Nike spokesman said. He added, "If we were, we wouldn't comment on it."
Historically, there has been tension between father Richard Williams and Nike for what he felt was a failure to take a keen interest in the girls sooner. And there is this little thought in the minds of sponsors seeking to hitch their wagon to a clear No. 1: There is always the possibility that Venus, not retired or on leave but ranked No. 2 in the world, thank you, just might decide to turn the tables on little sister again. Venus won four straight and five of their first six meetings before Serena took five in a row herself.
On the other hand, can Nike afford to let Serena walk off with Puma or somebody else if she continues to dominate the game like this? No one has won four Grand Slams in 12 months since Steffi Graf in 1994. It has been done just six times in history. If not for an ankle injury at the 2002 Australian Open, Serena might well have won only the fourth calendar-year Slam in the record books.
Few athletes climb this high. She has arrived at the base camp of a big summit, looking up into the mists of Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan territory. Woods, the world's best golfer, stands by himself in endorsement deals that garner more than $60 million annually, including a multi-year, $100 million contract with Nike.
"I think she's very highly marketable," said Maidie Oliveau, a Los Angeles sports attorney who was the first managing director of what became the WTA Tour. "Whether she's worth $10 million a year is up to Nike to decide. They're not doing it for charity. Right now it looks like Serena is about to overtake her sister permanently, but that could change if Venus starts winning some of their matches again."
In recognizability and marketing dollars, Venus still holds a slight edge. Her name-recognition number was 73 percent vs. Serena's 72 percent in a 2002 survey by Marketing Evaluations Inc. of Manhasset, N.Y., and Venus will rank No. 4 among female athletes to Serena's No. 5 in a report to come out in a few weeks, company officials said. Skaters such as Kristi Yamaguchi still rank slightly higher in recognizability in the company's surveys.
If the people who track such things are correct, Venus earns $12.9 million a year from endorsements, compared to Serena's present $7.8 million. Serena may be poised to sign the single largest marketing contract, but in overall endorsement money, both sisters still trail a tennis player who is no threat to them on the court -- Anna Kournikova. She rakes in a reported $12 million to $14 million despite never having won a major event.
It's worthwhile to keep in mind that the reported numbers for contracts often include what the athletes would receive with maximum performance incentives, not necessarily a guaranteed amount.
"When they say it's a $10 million contract, what they mean is, it's $10 million if they're winning and on TV," Oliveau said.
Serena said her success does not mean the sisters are drifting apart, just that she is exploring her own way.
"I think I've made a few different big steps," Serena said. "People can realize that and see us in different lights."
Venus has reacted gracefully in public to her losing streak against her sister, sometimes applauding her.
After the Australian Open in January, Venus said, "I wish I could have been the winner, but of course you have a great champion in Serena and she has won all four Grand Slams, which is something I'd love to do one day. So yeah, I'd kind of like to be just like her."
Playing in Key Biscayne means a chance to spend some time together in Palm Beach Gardens, Serena said.
"This time of year we're always together at the same time," Serena said. "We watch TV. She'll cook for me usually."
It may be deal-making time for Serena now, but she's not counting on a permanent edge over her sister.
"I can't say I'm better than Venus," she said. "I'm winning right now. We're both doing pretty well."