Jennifer Bentley and her sewing machine help players at the U.S. Open look neat and trim, as well as allowing bottom-rung competitors to pick up some extra money with last-minute advertising deals.
Bentley sews patches on uniforms bearing the logo of companies including Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc. (HOT), sometimes just minutes before the player is due to take the court at the National Tennis Center in New York.
Most of the athletes she sees are lesser-known, lower- ranked players who draw marquee opponents such as defending champion Novak Djokovic, French Open winner Maria Sharapova and top-seeded Roger Federer in one of the Grand Slam tournament’s main arenas.
“You have to play a big court, a show court,” said Lukas Lacko, the No. 54 player on the ATP World Tour, who said he picked up $2,000 from Starwood and its Westin hotel brand in a patch deal the day before his first-round match against James Blake of the U.S in the Grandstand. “It has to be on TV.”
The 24-hour lead time for Lacko was welcomed by Bentley, a freelancer from Croton-on-Hudson, New York, whose Elna sewing machine sits in what she described as a closet in the women’s locker room.
“I can do the job in 10 minutes,” Bentley, who turns 35 tomorrow and is paid an hourly wage that she declined to reveal, said in an interview. “But I’d rather not have to, especially if an anxious player is watching me.”
No player has shown more sponsor-patch anxiety than Mike Russell, according to Tim Curry, a spokesman for the U.S. Tennis Association, which runs the tournament.
Russell was so pressed for time before his match a year ago against 2003 champion Andy Roddick that he tried to staple the patch to his shirt, Curry said.
Federer, 31, makes about $51.5 million annually in prize money and endorsements, according to Sports Illustrated. He and other highly ranked players have long-term deals and permanently wear sponsor logos on their uniforms. Those at the bottom of the sport often play in shirts and shorts bearing only the manufacturer’s name, if that.
Lacko, 24, of Slovakia, was among five players with Starwood patch deals at this year’s Open, according to Bob Jacobs, vice president of brand management North America for Westin Hotels & Resorts. Also on the list were Rhyne Williams, 21, and Brian Baker, 27, of the U.S.; Melinda Czink, 29, of Hungary, and Paolo Lorenzi, 30, of Italy.
Jacobs wouldn’t say how much the players were paid. Based on the price quoted by Lacko, patch sponsors are getting a good deal, according to Eric Wright, president and executive director of research for Joyce Julius & Associates, an Ann Arbor, Michigan-based sports evaluation company.
“At the entry price, this is as close to guaranteed exposure as they’re going to get,” he said in a telephone interview.
Patch deals for one-off matches that take place early in the tournament are worth between $2,000 and $3,500, according to Kelly Wolf, the agent for Baker and Williams.
“If it gets to be the end of the tournament, it’s for sure five figures,” Wolf said in an interview, declining to say how much her clients are being paid.
After securing a full-tournament deal for Baker and a one- match contract for Williams, she found a New York embroiderer to add the Westin logo to Baker’s shirts and sewed Williams’s patch on herself.
Williams, the ATP’s 289th-ranked player, reached the Open’s main draw through the qualifying tournament with about $23,000 in prize money this year.
He said Wolf handled all the endorsement details before his match with Roddick in 23,000-seat Arthur Ashe Stadium two days ago.
“It was right before the match, and it was just, ‘Get out there,’” said Williams, adding he didn’t know how much he was paid. “I guess it was just a way to get a few extra bucks. It helps.”
Only Baker among the Starwood players reached the second round. He did a Tennis Channel interview after his win yesterday with the Westin embroidering visible on television throughout the conversation. He tried to display the logo again for an interview with ESPN, but the network had him face a different direction, taking it out of the shot.
“Westin has been good to me the last couple of weeks,” Baker said in an interview. “I was trying to give them a little bit of love.”
Williams lost to Roddick, Czink to Sharapova, Lorenzi to Djokovic and Lacko to Blake, an American playing his 12th Open who reached the quarterfinals in 2005 and 2006. Baker, who advanced to the fourth round at Wimbledon this year after missing four seasons with injuries, beat Jan Hajek of the Czech Republic 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 yesterday.
Scott Becher, an executive vice president for Z Sports & Entertainment, a division of Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based Zimmerman Advertising, said in a telephone interview that the short-term agreements make sense for both parties.
“It helps companies get unique visibility that’s immersed in the game and it helps lesser-known players both make a couple of dollars and build relationships that are otherwise difficult for them,” he said. “But there’s no authentic relationship. It’s just a billboard.”
Bentley sews patches on as many as eight shirts per player, so they can change out of sweat-soaked tops during their matches. She’s mindful of USTA rules on the size and shape of patches, often referring to a cheat sheet that includes outlines of what’s permissible.
“I don’t want anyone to get fined because of me,” she said.
Players can be picky when it comes to patch positioning, according to Bentley. Some demand that it face forward on the bicep, where television cameras can get a clearer shot.
“I’m guessing it comes from the advertiser,” she said. The seamstress said she also does uniform alterations, such as straightening hems.
Through the first two days of the two-week tournament, Bentley said, she sewed on patches for about 10 players, including a woman who only identified herself in the requested paperwork as the occupier of locker No. 53.
It turned out to be 20-year-old Simona Halep of Romania, the No. 53 player on the women’s WTA tour, whose patch partners were Deesse, a Swiss cosmetics company, and Sturdza Baring, a Swiss bank. Halep lost 6-1, 6-1 to 19th-seeded Nadia Petrova of Russia in yesterday’s second round.
Bentley said she watches the matches at home, and talks with her mother by phone about players whose uniforms carry her handiwork. So far, she said, none of her patches have come loose.
“That would be my worst nightmare,” Bentley said.
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