The Highest Paid Female Athlete On The Planet; Why Sharapova Is So Hot


Sept. 7, 2006 — -- She sells mobile phones, wristwatches, cameras, handbags and jewelry, automobiles, perfumes, tennis racquets, shoes, and clothing.

She made more than $20 million last year as a marketing engine for nine companies, all willing to keep her workdays under two weeks a year -- total.

She is Maria Sharapova, the player and the product.

"With Maria, we're building a brand," said Max Eisenbud, the Ohio sports marketing agent who has known his best-known client since she was 11 years old.

They met at a sports academy in Bradenton, Fla., where Sharapova had won a tennis scholarship after emigrating from Russia at age 7.

The substance of Sharapova's business plan, Eisenbud said, grew out of a sit-down conversation he had with another agent, Max Steinberg, whose best-known client is Tiger Woods.

"We figured out how Tiger does it," he said. Steinberg, Eisenbud said, "gave me an idea of the platform we could use."

Few athletes other than Woods and Andre Agassi have the kind of recognition factor and the number of "relationships" with sponsors that Sharapova has amassed, mostly in the two years since she won the Wimbledon Championship at the age of 17.

The word "platform" re-enters the conversation.

"It means that all her relationships make sense. The blue chips [companies] all make sense," Eisenbud said.

"She uses the products. She doesn't just scratch her head and say, 'Wow, I'll do this for the money.' She's building relationships."

If the money numbers are correct -- a Forbes magazine estimate of $19 million was "light by about $1 [million] to $2 million" -- the world's most highly paid female sports athlete makes a phenomenal $1,357,144 a day.

That's because Sharapova limits access to her time to 10 days to 12 days a year, shunning all marketing work within four weeks of any tournament, which is where she plays for a living.

Her reported prize money for the year prior to this year's US Open -- $1,493,923 -- amounted to little more than a day's pay in the world of endorsements.

"She's very much a businesswoman. She understands her role, both on the court and off the court," said Debbie Sanford, a spokeswoman for her chosen automobile company.

"She was very particular about what she wanted."

What Sharapova wanted before she could legally drive was a luxury all-terrain vehicle with a particular name. Check her Web site for more clues.

The sports utility vehicle she sells retails for more than $70,000 a copy.

That's high for a young woman under 21.

According to Sanford, however, a pretty young woman who swings a tennis racquet "absolutely fits our demographic."

The company is aiming for a younger buyer than those attracted by another sports figure it employs, Greg Norman, the Australian golfer.

"She's very iconic, very young and dynamic, and she's very professional."

Now, about the tennis.

Well, let's let that wait for another story.

What is Sharapova's future as a business?

In November, it may become clear -- or clearer.

She will sit down in Florida with her "partners," marketing specialists for the nine companies she represents.

For three days, they will brainstorm, looking for ways to extend their market share by maximizing her appeal.

Each member of the group will be careful not to trip over the plans of the other. At the end, the new Sharapova may emerge.

The dynamic of marketing and professional sport achievement is so entwined that it's possible Sharapova has only a few years' worth of star power left.

Once she leaves the tour, according to conventional wisdom, her attraction to buyers will fade.

Marketing professionals are not convinced, though.

According to a market research firm called E-Poll, Sharapova currently ranks 42nd in the world in what is called an E-Score, which it says is a "celebrity appeal ranking."

"Never underestimate the importance of physical beauty to an athlete's endorsement opportunities," said Marc Ganis, a sports industry consultant, in an interview with The New York Times.

Then there's the New Yorker magazine cartoon: Sitting in a restaurant with two ordinary-looking men, who look rich, one beautiful blonde leans over and murmurs to another beautifulblonde: "You know, beauty is the [E-ZPass] of life."

For those who don't use toll roads, an E-ZPass is an electronic gizmo that speeds the driver through the toll gates without stopping. All tolls are automatically collected. The person at the wheel moves far beyond the driver who has to stop and pay the toll collector.

Sharapova seems to have found her E-ZPass formula: Work hard, play hard, keep focused.

If she does that, she'll be "iconic" for years to come.

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