September 6, 2010

From the Populous Magazine archive: Issue 03, 2010

What makes sponsors flock to one successful female athlete, and recoil from another? Are they looking for results, looks, personality, or a combination of all these? Juliana Koranteng, author of Women and Sport: Strategies for Commercial Development, finds out.

It seems the world’s major sponsors don’t know how to appreciate a woman. Take British yachtswoman Denise Caffari, for example, the first female to sail solo, non-stop around the world, against prevailing winds and currents. Despite this astounding achievement Caffari is struggling to secure sponsors for the next Vendée Globe, the world’s top ocean race.

Meanwhile, Russian tennis ace Maria Sharapova has nabbed a US$70 million contract from sports clothing giant Nike, extending their relationship for another eight years. And yet, Sharapova, who last won a Grand Slam tournament in 2008, is not even the official world No.1. That honour goes to Serena Williams who [as we went to press] had earned more than $32 million in total prize money, the highest of any female athlete ever.

If you combine cash prizes and endorsements, however, Sharapova earned $24.5 million between June 2009 and June 2010 [according to Forbes], while Williams collected $20.2 million. Caffari doesn’t even get a look in.

According to Chicago-based global sponsorship consultancy IEG, sport sponsors spent $44 billion globally in 2009, and are expected to spend $46 billion in total throughout 2010. But why is there such a disparity between the marketability of female champions?

We were looking for a new audience that wasn’t the male techie associated with mobile phones at that time.

Aldo Liguori / Sony Ericsson

Until recent years, asking global conglomerates to sponsor female athletes for millions would have been like asking a Michelinstarred chef to sprinkle chalk on a platter of cheese.

Unthinkable. And while the lot of sports women is certainly improving, it’s difficult to say who or what determines their value.

“During my years here, we’ve seen many more partnerships with female athletes,” observes William Chipps, senior editor of the IEG Sponsorship Report. Yet, even he admits “it’s hard to assign a fair market value to individual athletes, because no one knows how to do that”.

Despite obliterating all rivals on the tennis court, Serena Williams reached only No.61 in this year’s Forbes Celebrity Rich List. Tiger Woods, once destined to be the first billion-dollar athlete until his recent fall from marital grace, reached No.5 for earning $105 million last year. Still, female athletes’ commercial value is growing, aided by the emergence of marathon powerhouse Paula Radcliffe, the dominance of sisters Venus and Serena Williams in tennis, US motor-racing’s Danica Patrick, and Lorena Ochoa, the Mexican wonder of international women’s golf.

According to Tom Zara, from New York-based global branding consultancy Interbrand, sponsors are guided by brand-measurement systems such as the Davie-Brown Index or Q Score.

Criteria used include athletes’ success rates, physical appearance, personality and reputation.

  • Skier Lindsey Vonn is photographed by Nicholas Schrunk in Los Angeles, California.

“The player’s skills are unquestionable,” he explains.

“At the end of the day, however, there has to be compatibility with the brand. The more the brand and the athlete have in common, the more [money] the athlete can command.”

Women also offer sponsors something unique: their gender. Paula Radcliffe, who was officially the fastest UK marathon runner, male or female, in 2003, says she’s running up to 14 miles a day for the 2012 Olympics, despite being pregnant with her second child. The media couldn’t get enough of first-time mother Kim Clijsters when she returned from retirement to nab tennis’ 2009 US Open. Then there’s Catriona Matthew who clinched last year’s British Open golf tournament just weeks after having her second child. “Not many sponsors will endorse male athletes for being dads,” says Clifford Bloxham from sports agency Octagon. “Women can bring in that extra dimension – motherhood.” Also indisputable is the fact that sex sells.

With her catwalk-model good looks, blonde Russian tennis player Anna Kournikova made millions from endorsements in the 1990s despite never winning a singles title. Another athlete known to have exploited her looks on magazine covers is Danica Patrick, currently the most successful female driver in America’s Indy 500 motor-racing. Sharapova has similarly capitalised on her telegenic appeal, with multiple magazine, TV and billboard appearances.

Interbrand’s Zara insists Sharapova is the real deal, however, in sponsorship terms. She triumphed at Wimbledon when only 17 and won three further Grand Slams. She has a riveting life story that includes her parents’ personal sacrifices to bring her from Siberia to the US in search of better prospects. “She is feminine, she has grit, personality and a cracking life story,” Zara says. “For her sponsors, as long as they share a common value, her tennis is irrelevant.”

  • Golfer Michelle Wie photographed by Norman Jean Roy.

Karen Earl, chairman of UK sponsorship consultancy Synergy, sums it up well: “Let’s face it, there are brands that chose to endorse Sharapova that wouldn’t have gone to a male discus thrower.”

Equally, a winning media personality can make a huge difference to sponsors. Sue Tiballs, head of the UK’s Women’s Sports and Fitness Foundation (WSFF), points out how Rebecca Adlington, the first British woman to win an Olympics swimming gold medal in half a century, became the darling of women’s magazines.

Adlington had spontaneously told the media how much she loved Jimmy Choo and Christian Louboutin shoes. “In our beauty and celebrityobsessed culture, both men and women are valued for their glamour,” Tiballs says. “Take David Beckham, for example. When Rebecca said she loved shoes, the women’s magazines could say: ‘Look, she’s one of us’.”

Sony Ericsson appreciated this personality factor when it agreed to sponsor the Women’s Tennis Association tour for $88 million in 2005. The move revolutionised women’s tennis and its media coverage. In addition to launching international brand campaigns with the Williams sisters, Daniela Hantuchova, and Ana Ivanovic, Sony Ericsson appointed Sharapova as its global ambassador. As Aldo Liguori, Sony Ericsson’s head of global communications, explains: “We were looking for a new audience that wasn’t the male techie associated with mobile phones at that time.”

Undoubtedly, female athletes in glamorous individual sports such as tennis, athletics and golf appeal more to sponsors. Other sports just don’t cut it. Amy Williams, the first British Winter Olympic gold medallist in 30 years, is reported to be struggling for a major sponsor. Her event, skeleton (tobogganing), doesn’t rank high among sexy sports events.


Sponsors are guided by brand-measurement systems such as the Davie-Brown Index or Q Score. Criteria include athletes’ success rates, physical appearance, personality and reputation.

Additionally, race and nationality are said to influence which woman a sponsor wants to be associated with. The well-paid African American Williams sisters are exceptions to this rule. And despite the dominance of badminton and golf players from south-east Asia and China, the global poster girls for these events tend to be Caucasians. “You can’t avoid the race issue,” says Anna Kessel, sports correspondent at British newspapers The Guardian and The Observer. “Most highly sponsored sports women tend to be white.”

Octagon’s Bloxham argues that female professional athletes still have a long way to go before they can attract big sponsorship money, simply because there aren’t enough of them in the first place.

So what does the future hold? The WSFF commissioned a report in the summer of 2010 that concluded there are some excellent sponsorship bargains to be had in women’s sport. “In comparison to men’s sport, the market is uncluttered and rights are far more affordable, providing cost- effective stand-out for brands,” it stated.

Meanwhile, anticipation for the FIFA Women’s World Cup in Germany next year, and the debut of women’s boxing in the 2012 Olympics, could offer sponsors new inventory to pick from.

At the end of the day, however, the experts agree a lot of hard work is required to lure the sponsor’s lucre. As the WSFF’s Sue Tiballs advises to all athletes: “Don’t be tempted by short-term big bucks. Look to the long term to build a profile that is strong and authentic. Look for brands that really believe in you.”


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