She’s a beautiful, curvaceous, dark-skinned African-American woman with a fit physique men the world over lust after. Of course, Williams is not your traditional size zero model type. She weighs 70kg, is 1,75m tall and her measurements read 36-28-44.
In stark contrast, Russian-born Sharapova is a tall (1,88m), lean (59kg) green-eyed blonde whose measurements read 34-24-36.
According to the Forbes’ 2014 World’s Highest-Paid Athletes list, Williams earned $11 million (R134,2 million) in endorsement fees last year, while 28-year-old Sharapova earned a whopping $22 million (R268,6 million) (despite her lacklustre performance on the tennis court in recent years, managing just five Grand Slam singles victories during the course of her career).
Head-to-head, Williams’ career prize earnings come in at just under $70 million (R854,6 million) compared to Sharapova’s $35 million (R427,4 million).
In an article penned for Forbes Dr Patrick Rishe, Sports Business Programme Director at the Olin Business School at Washington University, says a number of factors go into the process of determining an athlete’s endorsement value, with attractiveness, demographics and personality taking top priority.
For better or worse, looks and personality can impact an athlete’s marketability
“In sport success, likeability of personality, an athlete’s desire to pursue endorsement deals and market or geographical factors are but some of these factors. An athlete’s perceived attractiveness can also impact their endorsement value, as can demographic factors such as what audience does the athlete cater to and does that audience have preferences to see spokespeople who they better connect with…For better or worse, looks and personality can impact an athlete’s marketability,” Rishe writes.
He goes on to argue that while rising Chinese tennis star Li Na, with just two singles Grand Slam titles under her belt, has not nearly achieved the kind of success that Williams has on the court, Li, like Sharapova, raked in more than Williams in endorsement deals last year, earning a total of $15 million (R183 million) off court. According to Riche this seeming disparity makes more sense when you consider China’s population size, the country’s wealth, and the fact that Li was the first Chinese person to win a singles Grand Slam title.
While it’s common knowledge that corporates and brands conduct stringent surveys to gauge public sentiment before approaching certain athletes to endorse a particular brand or product, Rishe questions the role ethnicity and ‘corporate bias’ plays in explaining the glaring gap between Williams and Sharapova’s endorsement earnings, concluding ultimately, that “in all likeliness” the perception of race and beauty play a significant role in those decisions. “Corporations ultimately hire product endorsers who they think will connect with their client demographic. Tennis – despite its efforts to engage new communities of participants – is still perceived to be a country-club sport, where the typical demographic both playing and watching avidly is affluent and white,” he writes.
“Both are among the all-time greats and, especially for Serena, 2015 could be a historic year which she could fruitfully profit from. But how much she’ll profit from continued success may be limited if indeed corporate America is less willing to invest in an athlete who, in their eyes, won’t move the needle with their clientele.”