Maria Sharapova extends her reach

Written by New York Times | Updated: May 31 2011, 05:38am hrs
ERIC WILSON

WHEN Maria Sharapova won her first grand slam title in 2004, at age 17, she made the cover of Sports Illustrated. The issue showed Sharapova at the moment she became a household name, proudly beaming on court at Wimbledon in a white tank dress from Nike. Star Power, the headline read.

And do you think I knew what Sports Illustrated was Sharapova said recently, recalling the moment when her agent, Max Eisenbud, first showed her the magazine, expecting her to be as excited as he was. I knew what Vogue was, but I didnt know what Sports Illustrated was.

One does not become the highest paid female athlete in the world without recognizing that the greatest potential for earnings comes not from winning championships, but from endorsement deals, particularly with fashion and sportswear brands. Sharapova, now 24 years old and the seventh ranked womens singles player, made $24.5 million from June 2009 to June 2010, according to Forbes, about $4 million more than her nearest competitor, Serena Williams.

Last year, she renewed her contract with Nike in an expanded eight-year deal that is estimated to be worth as much as $70 million, the most ever for a female athlete, including royalties from clothes she designs for Nike. She also designs shoes and handbags for Cole Haan and endorses luxury brands like Tiffany and Tag Heuer, and the electronics company Sony Ericsson.

Expanding her reach into the unexpected, she is about to announce a new partnership with Jeff Rubin, the man who helped create Dylans Candy Bar in 2001 and a chain of candy shops inside F. A. O. Schwarz stores (called F. A. O. Schweetz) in the 1990s, to develop her own brand of candy and sweets. The name of her brand Sugarpova.

Despite recent progress in her professional comeback, Ms. Sharapova is laying the groundwork for what her life will be like after tennis, as she fights for turf among those athletes who aspire to become brands pushing both Nike and Cole Haan to produce more of her designs, creating the candy business and now expanding her online presence with a Facebook page with 4.3 million fans.

It was during her painful and frustrating rehabilitation in Phoenix, however, that her perceptions about her success began to change. Restless and ready to work, Sharapova called Mr. Eisenbud, who has managed her career since she signed with the talent agency IMG at age 11, and told him to contact all her sponsors. I dont care whats in the contracts, she told him. Tell them Ill do whatever they want, whatever they need.

She was determined to set Brand Maria in motion well before she was through playing tennis.

Her first big deal resulted from an unscripted moment at Wimbledon. After she won, her father slipped a cellphone into her hand so she could call her mother. She dialed the number, over and over, but the call would not go through. Eventually, she gave up, apparently unaware the whole episode was shown on television. Motorola, which was about to introduce its Razr series, signed Sharapova the next month. Commercials for Land Rover and Canon followed, and as her career advanced, Sharapova saw her name begin to appear on actual products, like sunglasses and a watch for Tag Heuer, and jewelry for Tiffany. For her collaboration with Cole Haan, introduced in August 2009, she insisted the company include a ballet flat. (I came in saying, You know what Im 6 foot-2 and I dont care about anyone else, she said. Im going to be selfish and say I love ballerinas.) The $138 shoes are now among the top-selling items for the entire brand.

Meanwhile, designing clothes had been a much slower goal to achieve. Two years after she won at Wimbledon, at the United States Open in 2006, her second grand slam title, she wore a little black dress with a round crystal collar that was inspired by Audrey Hepburn. It generated enormous publicity, but the dress, a collaboration between Sharapova and the Nike team, was never produced commercially. As part of her new deal with Nike, the company last year finally began producing and selling a line based on her on-court attire, and dressing several up-and-coming players, like Julia Goerges of Germany and Anastasia Pivovarova of Russia, in Maria Sharapova looks. For example, the same dress Sharapova is wearing this week, its crisscross taping inspired by the lines of the Eiffel Tower, has been at Nike.com and Tennis Warehouse for $120 for several weeks, something that took months of planning to achieve and represents a substantial investment on the part of Nike since it began to coordinate what players wear with what will be in stores.