The 30-year-old Maria Sharapova returns to action at Stuttgart on Wednesday, April 26, after a 15-month doping suspension. The 2-year-ban is reduced by nine months. She will be a wildcard entrant at Stuttgart.
Following Sharapova’s admission in March 2016 that she had tested positive for a banned drug at that year’s Australian Open, she was initially banned by the International Tennis Federation for two years, later reduced on appeal. Off the court, where she makes the bulk of her earnings, the question is – can she be as big a sponsor draw as she was before her enforced absence?
Although some fellow players have expressed misgivings, she has the support of the WTA tour, and her fans. And, with biggest commercial rival Serena Williams announcing she is pregnant and facing time away from the game, the Russian’s return is certainly timely, says a BBC report. After Serena Williams’ pregnancy announcement, sport will be looking for a replacement at the top of the women’s game.
It is an interesting co-incidence that the Stuttgart tournament is sponsored by Porsche, for whom Sharapova has been a “brand ambassador” since 2013. Though the German car company said at the time of Sharapova’s ban for taking meldonium it would be “suspending” its association with the player, it seems they’re more than happy to have her back behind the wheel.
In the year from June 2015, Forbes estimates the five-time Grand Slam winner made $1.9m (Rs 12.25 crore) in prize money from playing, but a whopping $20m (Rs 129 crore) from endorsements, a sum matched only by Williams.
And it is this primary source of earnings that Sharapova will be looking to reinvigorate. The fact there hasn’t been a public outcry against her return will have reassured brands to stick with her. If there had been protests from tennis fans, then that might have influenced her sponsors’ decisions.
Even the official Twitter account of the Women’s Tennis Association posted last month “’Tennis needs Maria!’ @mariasharapova’s rivals are looking forward to her return.” That was hastily deleted after being treated with scorn, not least by tour pro Alize Cornet, who replied “excuse me …??”
As it was the sponsor reaction was mixed – Head and Evian were immediately supportive, Nike and Porsche put their relationships on hold but later came back on board, while Tag Heuer and Avon chose not to extend deals that had ended. Given the large amounts of money and time invested – Nike’s relationship with the player dates back to when she was 11 years old – it is not surprising the major brands wanted to think hard before reaching their decisions.
Perfect looks, supported with five grand slam titles, backed by 23 million social media followers make her one of the most recognized and marketable faces in sports world.
The sponsors are not endorsing her because she has been the most successful player, it is because of what she brings off the court. Her persona and brand are what is most important. She knows how to market herself. She is commercially astute. To her credit, even after her time away, she is still probably the most marketable female tennis player.
As well as being a magnificent player, Sharapova is a world-famous beautiful celebrity. No wonder tournaments and sponsors are desperate to have her back.
The Italian Open in Rome next month has also given her a wild card. Now the pressure is on organisers of the upcoming French Open to decide whether they opt for principles or greed. They will make a decision on May 15 and no-one will be surprised if money talks – especially in the absence of the pregnant Serena, the only player with similar star power. Market forces though believe pregnancy may further open endorsement market for Serena.