By Jason Brown, USTA.com
Venus and Serena endorsing Doublemint Gum.
© Getty Images
Singular tennis sensations, Venus and Serena Williams are blazing a trail for women in the business world.
On the tennis court, Venus and Serena Williams are an unstoppable1-2 punch, the most remarkable sibling act in the history of tennis. Together, they account for six of the past seven Grand Slam titles (nine in all) and grasp a stranglehold on the rankings atop the women’s charts.
Off the court, their powerful punch has blessed them with championship credentials and the adulation, popularity and exposure executives in the business world covet. Serena and Venus are nearing uncharted waters for women, shattering preconceptions of the way female athletes are marketed in the United States.
Sharing the same level of success on the court as they have off the court, the sisters are in the midst of an unprecedented demand among businesses seeking their faces to represent their wide-ranging and far-reaching corporate brands.
The sisters are by all accounts the biggest draw in women’s tennis. In a recent example of their drawing might, the seating inside pint-sized Paul E. Tsongas Arena in Lowell, Massachusetts for the upcoming United States/Czech Republic 2003 Fed Cup first round match will be expanded to accommodate the Williams’ ever-growing fan base.
Star power: Serena Williams and Ronald McDonald.
© Getty Images
It’s like buying tickets to a Washington Wizards basketball game – you’re there to watch Michael Jordan, everything else is just part of the scenery.
And just like Mike, Venus and Serena have asserted the same tradition of excellence and dominance off the court that they so coolly and efficiently achieved between the lines, holding their own as mega-marketing mavens. The Williams’s are stockpiling endorsements at an alarming rate – and they are crossing traditional business boundaries unheard of in women’s athletics.
The sisters were named to Forbes magazine’s Power 100 in Fame and were the only female athletes listed in Fortune magazine in the same category.
Serena Earnings/Endorsements Venus
$10M (as of 12/02) Career Earnings $12M (as of 12/02)
(5 yrs, $13M) Puma/Reebok: Shoes & Apparel (4 yrs, $40M)
Wilson: Tennis Racquets/Strings
(3 yrs, $3M) McDonald's (3 yrs, $3M)
multi-year contract Wrigley's: Doublemint Chewing Gum multi-year contract
$500K Close-Up: Toothpaste
Venus, planning a second career after her current job hitting tennis balls reaches an end, started her own fledgling business during a hiatus following the 2002 US Open. She opened an interior design business, V Starr Interiors, which caters to high-end clients, many of whom are admirers of the first African American woman to be ranked No. 1 in the world.
Serena, SportsWoman of the year for 2002.
© Getty Images
The sisters were signed together to sponsor McDonalds (what television viewer hasn’t seen the commercial of the two of them going through the drive-through at McDonalds buying hamburgers…), Wilson tennis racquets and Wrigley’s Doublemint chewing gum.
Venus and Serena are featured in an upcoming magalog in a 14-page book titled, “Beauty Talk with Venus and Serena Williams.” Serena will also be the official “face” of Avon’s next fragrance, Individual Blue for Her.
The two sisters appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show on Wednesday, November 27th. Serena was also a guest on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Talking television, Serena has a burgeoning acting career having played a cameo as a school teacher in an episode of “My Wife and Kids”.
Serena and Venus will appear together in their first DVD, titled, “Raising Tennis Aces: the Williams Story,” released by Xenon Pictures. The DVD gives an inside documentary-style look at the sisters, from life at home in the dwelling they share to tournaments to everyday shopping, appearances and engagements.
But Serena is far and clear gliding past Venus on the endorsement food chain. Many marketers and companies now believe that Serena is close to becoming the rare female athlete who is capable of endorsing not only traditionally women’s products but also cross-gender and previously male-driven contracts.
Serena and Venus Williams introduce 'Designer of the Year' nominee Dolce Gabbana at the 2002 VH1/Vogue Fashion Awards at New York's Radio City Music Hall Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2002. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
“As Serena has matured on the court and become more successful, her personality has emerged,” said business manager Stephanie Tolleson, who represents both sisters. “It changed her marketability because companies got a better understanding of Serena as a person.”
Serena’s five-year, $13M shoe and apparel deal with Puma expired on January 15, 2003. When Puma signed Serena to that deal five years ago, her best result at a Grand Slam was advancing to the fourth round at the French Open.
Time certainly has a way of changing our perceptions of a player – since ’98, Serena has won five Grand Slams making her expired deal one of the best bargains for a star athlete in quite some time.
Her new shoe and apparel deal, still heavily speculated on but as of yet nothing confirmed, will be in the five-year, $50M range. Her biggest suitor appears to be Nike, with Puma still holding onto hopes of resigning their best client with the greatest marketability.
According to the LA Times, the speculated $50M range was deemed suitable after Venus signed her $40M deal with Reebok on December 21, 2000, at the time the largest product endorsement contract ever for a female athlete.
Serena is signed to a $500,000 deal hawking Close-Up toothpaste. This summer, she will appear for a limited time on the box cover of the toothpaste. Be sure to reserve your tube today at your local drugstore!
In another glowing example of singular star power, a triumphant Serena is pictured on the cover of the 2003 WTA Tour media guide – by herself – in the 2002 edition of the same guide, four different players were placed on the cover, surprisingly, none of them with the first name Serena.
Actor Gene Wilder with Venus at a charity event.
© Getty Images
Last year, Serena nearly became the first female tennis player to break the $4M plateau in a year’s earnings on tour. And let’s not forget the dozens upon dozens of interview requests, magazine covers, commercial spots, photographs and gossip columns.
Endorsements and personal endeavors aside, the Williams sisters continue to be the main attraction in women’s tennis, perhaps even the sport as a whole. While they have a reputation of playing a somewhat limited tour schedule, their presence in spot duty more than makes up for it: Sellout after sellout, from the East Coast to West Coast, from Paris to Melbourne.
Case in point, their recent decision to compete in Fed Cup for the United States this April. Tickets for the weekend event, originally billed to be featuring the likes of Lindsay Davenport and Monica Seles (no slouches either as big-ticket names), became must-see, hot ticket items in a nanosecond. Lowell better be prepared – they will be the center of the women’s tennis universe for a precious weekend series.
"This Fed Cup match has all the makings of a very special worldwide event," said Arlen Kantarian, Chief Executive, Professional Tennis, USTA. "Fans in the Boston area will have the chance to see the world’s top two players – Serena and Venus Williams – up close, and an opportunity to see why these two women have become the world’s most popular female athletes."
Blake is a marketer’s dream: The Williams sisters are blazing a trail of off-court success for female African American tennis athletes – and 22-year old American James Blake is not far behind on the men’s side.
Blake, voted the sexiest athlete of 2002 by People Magazine, has leapt from obscurity in the ATP rankings and is currently ranked No. 24 in the ATP Top 50 Entry Rankings. The man dubbed “GQ” by his close friends, who tease him about his newfound celebrity, has reportedly just inked a two-year, six-figure endorsement deal with Citizen Watches, according to SportsBusiness Journal.
Citizen hopes to broaden its customer base much in the same way that Buick automotive has done with golf star Tiger Woods.
William C. Rhoden, the celebrated sports columnist at The New York Times is working on his first book entitled, Lost Tribe Wandering, a political and cultural analysis of African American athletes.
Serena Williams (and ATP player Tommy Haas) appear in the athlete section of Sports Illustrated’s annual Swimsuit Issue, hitting newsstands this week.