Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Sporty, cheeky & flirty

Great play and shrewd branding make Sharapova world's highest-paid female athlete

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NEW YORK -- Maria Sharapova learned so much promoting other people's products in her first 10 years on the WTA tour that she decided it was time to start selling her own.

Sharapova this week introduced Sugarpova, her own candy brand comprising a dozen sweet and sour flavors with names such as Sporty, Cheeky and Flirty. The line of gummies is the result of experience Sharapova gained through sponsorships with companies such as Tag Heuer, Tiffany & Co., Samsung Electronics and Nike, the 25-year-old tennis player said at the product's introduction in New York.

 

"I've learned so much from different brands, whether it's advertising or marketing," Sharapova said in an interview this week in New York. "Their knowledge kind of came together in my brain and it was that inspiration that led me here."

With earnings from endorsements of $22 million in the year through June, Sharapova is the world's highest-paid female athlete, according to Forbes magazine. Sharapova introduced the candy on Aug. 20, did an event with sponsor Danone's Evian water the next day and was scheduled to spend time Thursday with Nike unit Cole Haan, with which she has a shoe collection.

In between, she'll prepare for the U.S. Open, which begins Monday at the National Tennis Center in New York. Sharapova won the final Grand Slam of the tennis season in 2006, the second of her four major titles.

"The life of a tennis player is very short," said 18-time Grand Slam champion Chris Evert, who retired in 1989 at age 34. "It's smart to think early and make decisions early on regarding what you want to do once you retire, because the opportunities might not always be there."

With total income of $27.9 million in the year through June, Sharapova has been the highest-paid female athlete for eight straight years, according to Forbes.

The 6-foot-2 right-hander has made $4.49 million in prize money this year and in June won the French Open to complete her career Grand Slam.

In July, she became the first woman to carry the Russian flag at the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games and eight days later won a silver medal in London, losing in the final to Serena Williams of the United States.

Sharapova said her off-court business interests, which also include fashion and jewelry, help her game.

"When I go back on the court, it keeps my mind fresh and energized," she said.

The third-ranked player can better manage her schedule as she gets older and becomes more acquainted with business, said Max Eisenbud, her agent for 14 years, vice president of IMG Tennis and chief executive officer of Sugarpova.

After she won Wimbledon in 2004, Sharapova dedicated about 15 days a year to eight-hour photo shoots with sponsors, Eisenbud said. That total is now much lower, though Sharapova's room during tournaments remains littered with sketches for clothing and shoe lines, he said.

Sharapova tops the earnings league without having reached the elite level of endorsers in the U.S., where she's known by about 44 per cent of the public, said Matt Fleming, a senior account manager at the Dallas-based Marketing Arm. By contrast, 91 per cent are aware of Williams, he said.

"Winning another U.S. Open title will help her," Fleming said in a telephone interview. "As will being relevant outside of the tennis world. The launching of the candy company may be a starting point for that."

Awareness of Sharapova -- Bing.com's most-searched-for athlete last year -- is probably higher in countries other than the U.S. where tennis is more popular, said Evert, a tennis analyst for ESPN. Much of Sharapova's appeal comes from her ability to balance power and strength with femininity, according to Evert.

Sharapova invested "a few hundred thousand dollars" in Sugarpova, which may expand into cosmetics, fragrances and other products, said Eisenbud.

"I really wanted to be involved in something from the beginning to the end, I wanted to own it 100 per cent," Sharapova said. "It's fun seeing it actually on the shelf."

 

-- McClatchy News Service

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 26, 2012 B8

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