Venus Williams Inks Rich Endorsement Deal

Tennis star Venus Williams signed a contract with Reebok worth a reported $40 million today in what is believed to be the richest endorsement deal ever for a female athlete.

“This is another part of reaching out for my dreams,” said Williams, who won Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and Olympic gold medals during a 35-match winning streak this year. At 20, she is ranked third in the world.

Rare for Women

Huge endorsement deals are rare in women’s sports. Nike has deals with soccer’s Mia Hamm, basketball’s Lisa Leslie, track’s Marion Jones and top-ranked tennis star Martina Hingis, who has a six-year pact worth nearly $30 million.

On paper, Anna Kournikova may have the richest deal of all, a six-year contract with Adidas worth $50 million. But it guarantees the tennis star only about $3 million, with the rest contingent on her success on the court. And she has yet to win her first tournament.

By contrast, Nike has a reported $100 million deal with Tiger Woods, and Michael Jordan generates $40 million a year in endorsement income two years after his retirement from basketball.

The terms of Williams’ deal were not disclosed, but Reebok marketing officer Angel Martinez suggested that reports of a five-year contract worth $40 million were accurate.

Similarities To Tiger Woods

Like Woods, Williams, who is black, has succeeded as a minority athlete in a sport historically dominated by whites.

“I have to be the best in everything I do,” she said. “We’ve come a long way with the WNBA and the soccer players. I’m doing what I can. Maybe that’s the most important part.”

Donna Lopiano, executive director of the Women’s Sports Foundation, said the deal “announces a new era in the corporate valuing of the female athlete.”

David Bober, who represents Hamm, was also impressed.

“It can only help shorten the gap between male and female athletes on endorsements,” he said. “It’s another signal that we are moving toward parity, a clear message that women’s sports are here to stay.”

Williams has been affiliated with Reebok since she was 11 years old. Their previous agreement, a five-year, $12 million deal signed in 1995, expired in April, just before Williams began her winning streak.

Williams’ younger sister, Serena, has an endorsement deal with Puma.

Venus Williams recalled taking a congratulatory telephone call from President Clinton after winning the U.S. Open, telling him, “Lower my taxes.” Now she might need a word with President-elect Bush.

“My people will have lunch with his people,” she said.