Don't hate them because they're beautiful.
With their good looks, hip outfits and off-the-court antics, women tennis stars have drawn heavy interest from audiences and endorsers alike.
Who Earns What
The audience for many of the women's matches at Wimbledon this year, including the finals, was higher compared to what many of the men's matches commanded. Venus Williams' recent $40 million endorsement contract with Reebok was the largest ever given to a female athlete. Both Anna Kournikova and Martina Hingis have graced the cover of GQ magazine.
The high profiles of these tennis divas lead many to believe that sex appeal has propelled these stars into the spotlight. But tennis officials and agents argue that it is a rare confluence of talent, looks and personality that is making these players a marketer's dream.
"I think they've done a good job of making sure that these women go beyond the sports page, and part of that is sex," says Jon Wertheim, who covers tennis for Sports Illustrated. His upcoming book, Venus Envy, profiles the women's tennis tour.
The Kournikova Conundrum
The case of Anna Kournikova is often cited as a classic example of this phenomenon. The Russian blonde, who has never made it to the finals of a Grand Slam tennis event, currently earns as much as the top-seeded Martina Hingis, according to industry sources.
But while both women currently earn around $15 million in total, the difference in what they make on the court is striking. Hingis has earned a little more than $1 million this year in tournament prize money alone, while 13th-ranked Kournikova has earned only $169,572 from matches so far this year, according to the Sanex Women's Tennis Association. She makes the rest from endorsements.
"I think it's embarrassing when far and away your most visible player has never won a [Grand Slam] tournament," says Wertheim.
A spokesman from sports marketing group Octagon, which represents both players, would not comment on their earnings, but bristled at the suggestion that Kournikova's looks alone are what is behind her endorsement success.
"If a woman was very attractive but was 140th in the world, she would not have these marketing deals," says Octagon spokesman David Schwab. "It's a combination of personality and marketability, but you need the performance."
WTA Chief Operating Officer Josh Ripple agrees. "It's a combination of on-the-court performance and on top of that, you also have a situation where you have players that are just more interesting," he says.
The New Generation
There are signs that Kournikova's reign in the endorsement world is slipping. Venus Williams' landmark Reebok deal, along with some other high-profile agreements (the Wimbledon champ is designing a line of clothes for Wilsons Leather that debuts this fall) are upping her profile.
Some marketing experts say Williams' de-beaded hair and humble and gracious attitude during her victory speech at Wimbledon reflect her desire to become a more marketable pitchwoman.
"If you look at Venus today vs. Venus two years ago, she is more mainstream-looking and that has helped her, in my opinion," says John Antil, a marketing professor at the University of Delaware.
Whether or not this desire for marketing dollars will continue among the next crop of champions is questionable. Up-and-coming players like Justine Henin, Kim Clijsters and Anna Dementieva seem to have more interest in playing good tennis than in being in the spotlight, notes Wertheim.
"This new crop is much more ambivalent," says Wertheim. "They know they you can be financially successful, but nobody's looking at Anna Kournikova as somebody they want to emulate."