"I used to delegate this sort of thing, but it always got
screwed up," Eisenbud said. "Maybe it's grunt work, but where Maria
stays is important. She's coming here for three weeks to try and
win a Grand Slam."
When it comes to his prized client, no task is too menial for
Eisenbud, who has represented Sharapova since she was 12. Today, at
25, she is the highest-paid female athlete in the world, earning
about $28 million over the past year, according to Forbes magazine.
Another Eisenbud client, the breakout Chinese star Li Na, ranks No.
2 on the Forbes list, having earned about $18 million.
"You could fairly say that Max and Maria have the most
successful agent-player relationship in the history of the game,"
said Andrew Walker, the chief marketing officer for the WTA. "And
it's been amazing to watch him replicate that success with Li
Eisenbud, a genial 40-year-old former college tennis player,
prefers to stay behind the scenes. He agreed to be interviewed for
this article only because he wanted to draw attention to
Sharapova's new business venture, a candy company named
Sugarpova. Eisenbud serves as its chief executive.
"He gave himself that title," teased Sharapova, who was seated
next to Eisenbud backstage at "CBS This Morning" last week. She was
appearing on the show to promote the colorful line of lip-shaped
gummies and tennis-ball-shaped gum.
"But I'm the only C.E.O. in America not getting paid," Eisenbud
While drawing no salary from the confectionary start-up,
Eisenbud and his employer, the Cleveland-based sports and
entertainment giant IMG, have earned millions of dollars
meticulously managing Sharapova's career.
Spend time with Eisenbud and Sharapova, and it is apparent their
relationship runs deeper than a business partnership. Their dynamic
most resembles that of an affable uncle and a spunky niece. She
relentlessly needles him about his receding hairline and expanding
waist. He urges her to turn in early that night and skip dinner at
a swanky restaurant. (She didn't.)
Asked how they have stayed together so long in a sport where
agent-player alliances are fickle, Sharapova said, "We don't see
each other that often."
Eisenbud agreed, saying: "I'm better in small doses. My wife
feels the same way."
But get past the shtick, and they display a genuine affection
for each other.
"Max is half family, half agent," Sharapova said. "He has been
with me and believed in me from the beginning. I can be guarded
around new people, but with Max, because of our history, there is a
special level of trust."
Around the Eisenbud home in Miami, where he lives with his wife,
Danielle, and two young sons, Sharapova is known as Aunt Maria.
"Everything I have I owe to her, from the house I live in to the
toys I buy my kids," Eisenbud said.
Growing up in Short Hills, N.J., Eisenbud dreamed of competing
at the United States Open. A top-ranked junior, Eisenbud won a full
tennis scholarship to Purdue, where he played four years on a
He also spent four years as social chairman of his fraternity,
Pi Kappa Alpha, becoming a minor campus celebrity for hosting
blowout parties and promoting concerts. After college, he spent
several years managing Push Down and Turn, an Indiana band he
thought could be the next Rolling Stones. It was not even the next
Approaching 30 and starting to worry about his future, Eisenbud
received a call from Justin Gimelstob, a childhood friend who was
then a rising star on the men's tour. Gimelstob needed help
organizing a charity tennis event featuring John McEnroe at their
hometown club. Eisenbud handled the assignment with aplomb, leading
Gimelstob, an IMG client, to suggest that he become a tennis agent.
He had never considered the career because he mistakenly thought
agents had to be lawyers.
"Law school wasn't an option for me," Eisenbud said. "I could
barely get through Purdue."
In 1999, IMG offered Eisenbud a job paying $27,500 a year. They
sent him to the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton, Fla.,
an IMG-owned training center for young talent. In a newly
created post, he served as a buffer between the junior players and
their agents, who were based in Cleveland and busy managing the
likes of Pete Sampras and Monica Seles. Eisenbud did everything,
including overseeing the youngsters' racket sponsorships and
coddling their overbearing parents.
On his first day in Florida, he was handed a list of the players
and their practice times. As Eisenbud roamed the courts, he was
stopped in his tracks by a tall, lithe 12-year-old smacking ground
strokes with a supernatural intensity.
"You ever see the videos of Tiger Woods hitting the golf ball
when he was 6?" Eisenbud said. "It was like that."
Eisenbud had a hunch that the 12-year-old, Sharapova, who had
come from Russia four years earlier, would be his meal ticket. He
ingratiated himself to her and her parents, helping them settle
sticky visa issues and deal with the Russian tennis federation.
Sharapova's father asked that Maria work with Eisenbud full time,
and within 18 months, he had moved to Cleveland and was
representing her exclusively.
Though Sharapova started turning heads at 13 with strong
performances on the international junior circuit, Eisenbud resisted
smaller sponsorship deals. Instead, confident of bigger offers to
come, he primed the IMG sales force - a group that works with the
corporate clients - by sending continual updates on her
"Don't sell her, just keep an eye on her," Eisenbud
In 2004, when Sharapova won Wimbledon at 17, companies were
tripping over one another to sign her.
"That's when I saw the amazing machine that Mark McCormack built
swing into action," said Eisenbud, referring to the pioneering
sports lawyer who started IMG. "Suddenly I went from being an idiot
to the smartest agent in the world."
By the end of 2005, Sharapova had signed seven-figure contracts
with Motorola, Canon, TAG Heuer, Colgate and Land Rover. An
eight-year deal with Nike signed in 2010 could exceed $70 million,
a figure that includes royalties from her best-selling Maria
Sharapova signature ballet flat from the Nike-owned Cole Haan.
Forbes has named her the world's top-earning female athlete eight
years running. Harvard Business School teaches a case study on the
success of her brand.
Right behind Sharapova in earnings is Li, the No. 1-ranked woman
in China. IMG had long yearned to sign Chinese players, given the
opportunity for Western companies to reach the country's growing
middle class. The Chinese government had prohibited its athletes
from working with agents but loosened its reins after the 2008
When Eisenbud signed Li in 2009, she was ranked in the top 25.
Sponsorship opportunities abounded, including several fast-growing
Chinese apparel companies that wanted to outfit her. Sensing an
opportunity, Eisenbud struck a hard bargain with Nike. He
negotiated a deal that allowed Li to wear patches with other
corporate logos on her clothes. Every other Nike tennis player -
Roger Federer and Sharapova included - is barred from doing so.
Last year, Li won the French Open, the first
Asian-born player, man or woman, to win a Grand Slam singles title.
Just as he did after Sharapova's Wimbledon victory, Eisenbud seized
the moment. Within weeks, he struck seven large corporate deals
worth about $48 million over three years. Mercedes-Benz and Taikang
Life Insurance are each paying Li $2.5 million a year to advertise
on her sleeves.
"One of the toughest decisions an agent has to make is when to
cash in," said Darren Rovell, ESPN's sports business reporter, "and
Max's timing on both Sharapova and Li Na has been exactly
Eisenbud dismisses the notion that he is some kind of commercial
killer whose masterly negotiating secures more money for his
clients than they ever dreamed possible. He likes to compare
himself to Phil Jackson, the coach who won N.B.A. titles with
Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant on his teams.
"Phil Jackson is a good coach, and I'm a good agent, but I
wouldn't be sitting here right now if my clients weren't Maria
Sharapova and Li Na," Eisenbud said. "My main job is to not screw