Maria is a marketing machine
By Gene Sapakoff
The Post and Courier
Monday, April 14, 2008
It's not like we didn't see this coming. Maria Sharapova was just 15 when she made her first and only Family Circle Cup appearance. But even in April of 2003, the native Russian spent part of her time on Daniel Island at an autograph table signing Prince racket posters featuring a giant photo and a title:
So what if Sharapova had finished the 2002 schedule ranked 186th on the Sony Ericsson Women's Tennis Association Tour computer? She was on the fastest track in sports. Within 15 months of her first-round loss at the 2003 Family Circle Cup, Sharapova was a 17-year-old Wimbledon champ celebrating the first of her three Grand Slam singles titles.
The Princess instantly became tennis royalty after her conquest of Lindsay Davenport in the semifinals and Serena Williams in the final at the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club.
No wonder there was so much disappointment, even anger, when Sharapova withdrew from the 2007 Family Circle Cup with a shoulder injury with her photo on the official event program and promotional billboards.
She is due back at the 35th annual Family Circle Cup, which starts with main draw action today. Sharapova officially is ranked No. 5 and coming off a Bausch & Lomb championship on Sunday on Amelia Island, Fla., but unquestionably No. 1 among many tennis fans and people who wouldn't know a half volley from a kick serve.
The first time Sharapova played in Charleston, she was a potential star.
Five years later, she is the player and personality veteran sports business analyst Darren Rovell of CNBC described as 'the most marketable athlete in the history of women's sports.'
The endorsement numbers are as impressive as the competitive spirit Sharapova honed as a committed kid living at Nick Bollettieri's famed tennis academy in Bradenton, Fla.
'Anna Kournikova with game' became just the 15th player to surpass $10 million in WTA Tour career prize money last year, which included her U.S. Open singles championship. She reportedly made $20 million more selling things in 2006 alone and after opening 2008 with an Australian Open title is well on her way to more fun and cash.
Sharapova carefully has crafted what she describes as 'relationships' with sponsors. They include Prince, Nike, Gatorade, Canon, Land Rover, Tag Heuer, Motorola, Tropicana and Colgate.
Part of a 'lifetime' Prince deal called for Sharapova to design a pink racquet bag. CBS Paramount Network TV is working with Sharapova on a sports-themed drama project 'set inside the world of professional women's tennis.'
Nike's 'I Feel Pretty' television campaign full of New York City street scenes was a huge hit before the 2006 U.S. Open.
The Canon contract reportedly was three years for $6 million, and that was signed way back in 2004.
For an estimated $1 million per year, Sharapova is 'the global female face for Gatorade.'
Which is quite a responsibility until you realize Rovell has Sharapova on his list of the three 'most marketable current athletes.' Tiger Woods and LeBron James are the others.
Sports Business Daily recently surveyed 65 business and media executives asking them to rank active athletes for sales potential in the North American market. The list: 1. Tiger Woods, 2. Peyton Manning, 3. LeBron James, 4. Derek Jeter, 5. Dwayne Wade, 6. Dale Earnhardt Jr., 7. Tom Brady, 8. Shaquille O'Neal, 9. Sharapova.
Internationally, Sharapova certainly moves up the list. The status is cemented by her tennis performances, highlighted by a No. 1 ranking for seven weeks in 2005 and a career-high No. 2 finish in '06.
Magazine covers have included Forbes, Sports Illustrated and ESPN The Magazine. Sharapova has been featured in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. She has been named one of People Magazine's '50 Most Beautiful People.'
Sharapova is captivating even while on the frustrating end of a lopsided loss. The 2007 Australian Open final in which she won only three games against Serena Williams drew a 1.9 television rating, the highest ever for an ESPN2 tennis broadcast. The 2006 Australian Open final featuring Amelie Mauresmo's victory over Justine Henin got a 0.9 rating.
No wonder ABC News labeled the 6-2, 130-pound Sharapova 'a moneymaking machine ... and a future icon.'
Not bad for a teen who doesn't turn 21 until Saturday, hopefully celebrating somewhere in Charleston.