The business of sport: money, looks, and talent

mulligan, 13 September 2006, Comments Off on The business of sport: money, looks, and talent
Categories: Uncategorized

Watching Maria Sharapova win her second major in tennis last week, I was again struck by the importance of “good looks” for any sport, particularly on the female side. Maria Sharapova, who is only 19 years old, is the highest paid female athlete in history, making $20 million a year (most of it in endorsements). No one can doubt her abilities or dedication to the game, but there have been plenty of other female tennis players who have won more majors than her (some of whom, as Justine Henin-Hardenne, are still playing right now). Maria gets more money basically because she looks like a model and has in fact appeared in Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue. For the business of tennis, Maria Sharapova represents a gold mine in media coverage and viewer following. She’s got the name recognition to be on David Letterman and clever commercials from Canon. She’s better for tennis than Anna Kournikova ever was because Maria has what Anna never had: victories.

For purists of the sport, thinking about the marketing aspects of the sport is unpleasant, if not sacrilegious. But when it comes down to “making a living” on tour, the players can all benefit from having a few marquee players who will bring in the viewers and dollars to the tournaments. Tiger, of course, does it for the PGA. Right now, the LPGA is searching for its Tiger … or, better yet, its Maria Sharapova.

Natalie Gulbis has great potential, but at age 23 she desperately needs a victory to validate her credentials. Then, of course, there’s 16 year old Michelle Wie, the golfer who has the most potential for elevating the media coverage and sponsor money for the LPGA. Michelle Wie has been roundly criticized — even by some writers on The Golf Blog — for her strategy in playing with the men (which she’ll be doing again this week). Some of it may be justified, but, from a business standpoint and the standpoint of the tour, Michelle Wie represents media coverage and viewer following. As one writer put it today, Journeyman pros owe thanks to Michelle Wie. Sure, if you are purist, you will dismiss the strategy as a marketing ploy or media creation. But, in the real world, sports is very much a business, in which — rightly or wrongly — looks and charisma of players, particularly for golf and tennis, matter more to the success of the sport than nearly everything else.


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