As Serena Williams swats and backhands her way towards sports history at the U.S. Open this week, controversy has cropped up over whether she is getting a champion’s payday that’s worthy of her performance on the court.
The fact at the heart of it all: Maria Sharapova, the tall, blond Russian superstar whom Williams has bested in 16 out of 17 of their matches, earned $10 million more in endorsement deals last year than Williams, according to Forbes’ data.
In fact, despite her status as one of the most dominant athletes in the world in any sport, Williams has only reached 47th on the magazine’s list of the world’s highest paid athletes.
Williams herself has shrugged off the income gap in her usual single-minded manner.
“If they want to market someone who is white and blond, thatâs their choice,ââ Williams told the New York Times Magazine recently. ââI have a lot of partners who are very happy to work with me.ââ
Nothing says that all athletes must be rewarded with sponsorships in proportion to their ability â in most cases they aren’t â but after devoting much discussion this summer to the body-shaming issues that have dogged Williams’ career, many people began to wonder whether the disparity was rooted in market-driven racism or sexism.
Picking apart each individual thread of thought behind why certain athletes are better suited to sell products than others is a messy and difficult exercise â but broad-stroke trends suggest these public attitudes can drive sports marketing decisions.
The pro-sports gender pay gap is real
For starters, there’s the well-documented fact that female athletes tend to earn less than male athletes.
Tennis is less lopsided than the majority of sports, but the gap is still visible â especially when it comes to sponsorships. Roger Federer, the top male tennis player with an objectively less impressive overall record than Williams, made more than double her $24.6 million in earnings last year with a windfall of $58 million.
“The world of sports, the world of brands, the world of luxury â it’s extremely sexist no doubt,” says branding consultant Dean Crutchfield.
On top of that, many people have pointed to a double standard where men are judged more on their own athletic ability while women are often chosen on the power of their looks, according to T. Bettina Cornwell, a sports marketing professor at University of Oregon.
“Most commentators will say that male and female athletes are prized for different features- the problem with evidence on “looks” is that it is a subjective call,” Cornwell said in an email. “The whole discussion is also made messy by the different categories that men and women endorse, so this too could circle back to a double standards discussion.”
Make no mistake, Williams is at the height of popularity right now, and there’s no shortage of brands looking to cash in on her success.
With the 33-year-old bearing down on the historic possibility of winning four Grand Slams in one calendar year, ESPN says the number of viewers tuning in to the U.S. Open after three days is up 58% from last year with nearly twice as many young people aged 18 to 34.
That’s because Williams is one of a only a few big-name tennis stars whose fame has spilled over from core tennis fans into the public at large, says Q-Scores executive vice president Henry Schafer, whose firm analyzes celebrity likability and branding appeal.
Sharapova is on the verge of breaking into the mainstream, but she still lags behind Williams.
But here’s the catch: among higher income crowds â those who make $100,000 or more per year â Sharapova has the definitive edge in popularity, says Schafer. The appeal is evident in the sprinkling of luxury brands that have chosen her to sell their products: Porsche, Tag Heuer and Avon Fragrances.
These are the types of upscale brands that typically pepper the commercial breaks of tennis broadcasts, the audience for which skews heavily towards wealthier white viewers.
Every endorsement deal is based on a simple equation: Brands want to transfer the personality and the public image of a celebrity onto their own product. Thus, the spokespeople companies choose can be very indicative of what advertisers perceive their target audience as favoring.
“Maria Sharapova is more of a classic model â a classic model type that has been in advertising for decades,” Cornwell said. “The $100,000 plus crowd is slightly older and people tend to know what they like and importantly, like what they know.”
But the established notion of who is watching tennis is already changing. As Williams’ success propels her from the tennis world to the larger realm of pop culture, her star power becomes impossible to ignore.
ESPN told Ad Age that the buzz surrounding Williams has lured a whole new set of advertisers to this year’s U.S. Open for the first time, including Dick’s Sporting Goods and Beats, who are likely interested in the younger, more diverse crowds that Williams draws.
Williams is certainly a marketable powerhouse in her own right, says Darin White, chair of the American Marketing Association’s Sports Marketing Society. Her inspirational career trajectory from the public courts of inner-city Compton, California to the highest echelons of the sport no doubt resonates across demographics and her continued winningness in the sport only adds to the appeal.
“Serena represents success and she’s a great example of a pioneer in terms of what she’s done in tennis,” White said.
Should Williams lock down the first calendar grand slam since 1988 this week, she will further cement her legacy, and at that point, says White, there will be little doubt of her advertising potential.
“To a great degree, what happens in the next couple days will decide that,” White says.
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