Forbes: Maria Sharapova: The Business Behind The World’s Most Marketable Female Athlete
By Mark J. Burns
Maria Sharapova never attended college or post-graduate school. The tennis star’s highest level of education comes in the form of a high school diploma, which she obtained online through Keystone National High School.
Yet, for the 28-year-old Russian native, she’s carrying a “PhD in sports marketing without even attending college,” according to her long-time agent, Max Eisenbud.
Today, it has become commonplace for athletes and celebrities to publicly discuss their “brand” and how they want to be perceived by blue-chip companies. For Sharapova, she has been creating and refining her brand since she was a young teenager, all with the guidance of Eisenbud.
When a shoulder injury in 2008 threatened to sideline the tennis star for the rest of her career, Sharapova instructed Eisenbud to call her sponsors and let them know her situation. In retrospect for Eisenbud, 2008 was arguably a defining year for Sharapova as the tandem began thinking about life after tennis.
“She told me, ‘Tell them now I have a lot of time,’ ” Eisenbud remembers. “She said, ‘I don’t care what’s in the contract. I’ll do whatever is needed.’ ”
Seven years later and the smart and savvy business woman now lays claim to the title of the world’s most marketable female athlete, pulling in almost $30 million a year through earnings, endorsements and off-the-court ventures, according to Forbes. For the 11th straight year, Sharapova is the highest paid female athlete and once again, ahead of rival tennis star, Serena Williams ($24.6 million).
Winning Wimbledon in 2004, as Sharapova explained to Forbes, only spurred her focus even more when it came to her off-the-court endeavors.
“Making the ‘smart decisions’ became a priority to me,” she said. “Creating relationships with brands that felt organic and that could sustain throughout my career which was just beginning.”
Now, Sharapova is partnering with top-tier brands such as Head, Tag Heuer, Avon and Evian, a company she has been associated with for over 10 years. The five-time Grand Slam winner is the Founder/Creative Director of her premium candy collection, Sugarpova, and is also a Co-Investor and Co-Owner of SUPERGOOP!, a premium collection of sun protection products for your skin. In the spring of 2014, Porsche named Sharapova its first ever female ambassador.
Most recently, she signed a two-year deal with American Express AXP +2.67% around the U.S. Open. Fans will have the unique opportunity to play a virtual tennis match against Sharapova in an on-site activation called ‘You vs. Sharapova.’ Yet, what is arguably most impressive about Sharapova’s portfolio is her long-standing partnership with Nike NKE +4.63%, a relationship that started when she was 11 years old.
“I think it says a lot about her when you’re able to have such a long relationship with a brand,” Eisenbud said. “There are very few people in the sports world who have these types of long relationships. She understands return on investment and looks as these relationships as partnerships. …She’s just a really good businesswoman. When her career is over, and she has 365 days a year to dedicate to business, it’s going to be pretty scary.”
Sharapova touted social media, and specifically Facebook, for helping her grown her own brand but also, connect with fans across the world. With over 15 millions fans on the platform, Sharapova said she creates her own posts because she wants to be as authentic as she can with her supporters.
“The key to a successful presence on social media is unique and original content and a personal voice,” Sharapova added.
According to Sharapova and her representatives, much of her focus in the near and long-term future will be expanding Sugarpova into different categories, including launching sleep and loungewear and soon delving into chocolates in 2016. As she continues to navigate the tennis, fitness, beauty and candy spaces — setting herself up for success post-playing days — Sharapova will continue to live by her two fundamental pillars: consistency and perseverance.
“I find that overall success, no matter in what arena, is driven by the same disciplines. To excel at anything requires consistency and perseverance,” Sharapova said. “You have to dedicate a part of your day, every day, to learning and building yourself as either an athlete or an entrepreneur. In both fields, I often like to take a look around and see what is not being done (as opposed to what everyone else is doing). Many times that is where the best opportunities lay to really achieve something special.”