Commentary > Business of Sports
Anna can keep winning off the court
Endorsement dollars should keep flowing to Kournikova while she struggles for first pro victory.
July 8, 2002: 10:41 AM EDT
A weekly column by Chris Isidore, CNN/Money Staff Writer.

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Anna Kournikova has to be the most successful loser in the history of sports. And she's likely to hang onto that dubious title for the foreseeable future.

The tennis player makes a reported $10 million a year in endorsements despite never having won a professional singles tournament -- far more than many more accomplished players ever will see from sponsors in their careers. Her model-like looks have made up for her lack of on-court accomplishments, including her first-round exit in this year's Wimbledon.

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But don't expect either her on-court or off-court record to change. Her agents say that they haven't seen any drop in interest from potential sponsors, and that Kournikova has no plans to drop tennis for a full-time modeling career any time soon, as some sports commentators suggest she should.

Don't expect to see less of Kournikova in advertising campaigns despite the lack of success on the tennis court.  
Don't expect to see less of Anna Kournikova in advertising campaigns despite the lack of success on the tennis court.

"Her goal is to be a champion tennis player," said David Schwab, spokesman for Octagon, the world's second-largest sports management group, which acts as her agent. "She's a former No. 1 junior player in the world. She continues at age 21 to grow on the WTA tennis tournament. She's 100 percent committed to her tennis. That is her first priority."

But while it seems premature to write off a player's career at age 21, especially as she comes back from an injury, it's tough to picture Kournikova approaching the talent and skills of the Williams sisters, who are to meet in Saturday's finals at Wimbledon.

Kournikova's sponsors include Internet search engine Lycos, Omega watches, and Berlei lingerie, as well as sports equipment makers Adidas and Yonex. But even if she continues to make early-round exits in tournaments, she'll probably continue to gather more endorsements than some more successful players, such as Jennifer Capriati, whose endorsement career has been damaged by past drug and legal problems, or most of the colorless, anonymous male players now on the tournament.

The woman who launched a million Web searches still has value for Lycos and her other sponsors.  
The woman who launched a million Web searches still has value for Lycos and her other sponsors.

Tennis fans might be more impressed with Justine Henin or Lleyton Hewitt as players, but few non-tennis fans have heard of either player. That's clearly not the case with Kournikova.

Her own agency concedes it's not her tennis abilities alone landing her endorsement deals.

"She's a great tennis player, has a great look, and has global appeal. Those are the combination of characteristics companies look for when they're looking to partner with athletes," said Schwab.

An increasing number of fans would dispute Schwab's "great tennis player" description. Kournikova has become one of those celebrities who is famous for being famous. Her on-court failures draw far greater attention than the losses of less high-profile players. She storms out of an interview with the BBC after her Wimbledon loss, and it becomes a global news story. Her sole court victory during her pro career was a lawsuit against Penthouse magazine, which incorrectly claimed to be running topless photos of her.

Sponsors generally refused to comment on the record about Kournikova's future as an endorser if she keeps losing. But so far even her failures seem to help.

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"She doesn't have to win, she's still newsworthy," said an executive from one of her sponsors, who spoke to me on a not-for-attribution basis. "She talks to the British press and everyone goes crazy. I'm sure it's got to end somewhere if she doesn't win, but I'm not sure when."

Others are even more sanguine. "It depends on what they're trying to do with a product. If they're trying to portray the product as the product of champion, of course they wouldn't use her," said Myles Gallagher, president of sports marketing firm The Superlative Group. "But if they're trying to sell products to make you seem youthful and beautiful, she can still do that."

John Antil, professor of marketing at University of Delaware, is less optimistic about Kournikova's longer-term endorsement potential without signs of improvement on the court. He said the success of the Williams sisters is making them more attractive endorsers, something that in the current soft advertising market makes them a much better choice for many potential sponsors.

"Is she (Kournikova) going to get a five-year deal with someone? I don't think so," he said. "Would I sign Venus Williams for five years for a good buck? Yeah, I would."

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But even a skeptic such as Antil wouldn't dismiss Kournikova's endorsement career as easily as sports commentators are dismissing her tennis career.

"As long as there's nothing overly negative, if she continues to get attention, she's got endorsement potential," he said. "She's a gracious loser."

Being such a successful loser helps with that graciousness.  Top of page