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As her tennis career fades, Serena Williams joins the endorsement elite

Since returning to tennis as the mother of her daughter Olympia, Serena Williams hasn’t ruled the courts with the same dominance, but she has exploded the list of elite athletes earning money from endorsements – Copyright POOL/AFP FETHI BELAID

John BIERS

Since returning to tennis as a mother in 2018, Serena Williams hasn’t ruled the courts with the same dominance she once displayed, but has surpassed her pre-pregnancy mark in one key category: out-of-court endorsements. ground.

For many years, Williams’ rank on the list of elite athlete endorsements lagged behind his remarkable professional accomplishments.

But in recent years, as she has identified more with motherhood and non-tennis activities such as venture capital, Williams has finally become a superstar that is not limited to sports brands.

“She has no problem polarizing anyone, which makes her a good marketing celebrity,” said Henry Schafer, executive vice president of Q Scores, whose scores are a well-known benchmark for measuring personality. appeal to A-lister consumers.

Williams’ TV spots have been varied: for JPMorgan Chase, she read the lyrics to an LL Cool J classic; for DirecTV, she fought monsters in a Wonder Woman costume; and for Michelob, she starred in an expensive 2022 Super Bowl ad.

The 23-time Grand Slam champion earned $45 million in endorsements in 2022, about four times her level in 2014, when she was the world’s No. 1 player, according to Forbes’ annual list of highest-paid athletes. .

Advocates for women in sports celebrate Williams for breaking the glass ceiling in marketing as a woman of color, but note that only two of Forbes’ top 50 athletes are women.

“As with everything in women’s sports and marketing, we still have a long way to go,” said Danette Leighton, chief executive of the Women’s Sports Foundation.

“We’re grateful that Serena was able to do what she did and receive the accolades and notoriety, but there’s still a lot of work to do.”

Leighton cited a study that found women make up 40% of all athletes, yet women’s sports only receive 4% of media coverage.

– Hitting obstacles –

Early on, Williams and her older sister Venus — a seven-time Grand Slam champion — earned important sartorial endorsements even before winning major championships.

Serena Williams, seen training in New York ahead of the US Open, is expected to retire from tennis after the tournament. — © AFP

In Serena’s case, her first big apparel deal was with Puma, who outfitted her for her first Grand Slam triumphs, including her first “Serena Slam,” a 12-month streak in 2002 and 2003 during of which she held all four major titles.

Williams then signed a major contract with Nike in 2003, when Forbes’ list of 50 highest-paid athletes did not include any women.

She has often pushed the boundaries of tennis fashion, donning bold outfits such as a black Puma jumpsuit at the US Open 2002 and a one-legged Nike version in Australia in 2021 to honor track legend Florence Griffith-Joyner .

But she also suffered some very public meltdowns that could have dampened her marketing enthusiasm, the worst of which came at the 2009 US Open when she threatened a linesman in a semi-final loss to Kim Clijsters.

The second time she completed the “Serena Slam” in the 2014 and 2015 seasons, Williams’ endorsement profile drew attention for her relative modesty.

“Williams is arguably the greatest female athlete of all time, but sponsors have often shunned her,” Forbes said in 2015, noting that she trailed Maria Sharapova in endorsements for the 11th consecutive year, although she towered over the Russian tennis star and possessed many others. securities.

“Williams’ skin color, muscular body type and memorable outburst at the 2009 US Open were all blamed by pundits for the approval gap between Williams and Sharapova,” the magazine said.

“The reality is that there is no magic answer to disparity.”

– Iconic character –

Marketing pundits say Williams’ recent leap into the endorsement stratosphere reflects her increased reliability since becoming a mother and being forced to juggle work and family life.

With Margaret Court’s record 24 Slam titles in sight, Williams reached four major finals as a mother, but lost them all – setbacks that may have endeared her to the public.

The twilight of Williams’ career has dovetailed with societal pressures for greater racial and gender equality, and many brands are now more eager to be associated with a successful black woman.

Q Scores rates Williams at 78 in recognition, well above other female athletes. His “positive” Q rating of 17 is now better than his “negative” Q rating of 14, Schafer said.

Naomi Osaka (L) and Serena Williams – seen at the 2021 Australian Open – are the only two women on Forbes’ list of top 50 highest-paid athletes. — © AFP

That means Williams has a more favorable ratio than athletes like NBA superstar LeBron James and NFL legend Tom Brady.

Leslie Allen, a former top American tennis player who is African American, said the business world has long underestimated the ability of people like Williams to appeal to consumers of all races, calling her marketing success a “late”.

Allen is delighted that the other woman on the Forbes list of top athletes is four-time Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka, who is of Haitian and Japanese descent.

“I love that the first two women on this list are women of color, which means we’ve come a long way to being able to be universally accepted as viable brand ambassadors,” Allen said.

“It was impossible 20 years ago.”