She arrived at the U.S. Open as an unseeded upstart. But as Venus Williams romped through the tournament in a pair of Reeboks named after her, it became clear that the sneaker maker had placed a smart bet on the 17-year-old tennis phenom. Four days after Williams collected the runner-up trophy, her trademark red, white, and blue hair beads--all 1,800 of them--flailed about on the cover of Sports Illustrated, which dubbed her "party crasher" for her brash star turn.
But as some declared Williams the Tiger Woods of tennis, other players on the Women's Tennis Assn. tour took potshots at her, and her father complained about racism in the sport. In the aftermath of all that unpleasantness, the unavoidable question is: Has Venus damaged her potential as a star spokesperson?
Of course, many companies would welcome the controversy. Nike confronted racism in golf with one of its early Tiger Woods TV spots, and Converse signed up the National Basketball Assn.'s No.1 badass Dennis Rodman. Hip youth brands might embrace Venus as a feisty young woman taking some of the starch out of the largely white world of tennis.
"She could be a breakthrough player," predicts David Falk, longtime agent of Michael Jordan. He reasons that her unique look, dynamic personality, and power game could help her set a new standard for tennis marketers. At 6 ft. 2 in. with a serve clocked at 108 mph, Venus proves women can be as strong as men, says Katie O'Neill, director of client marketing at powerhouse agency IMG.
"COMPLICATED." Venus is a hit around the world, too. At Wimbledon last summer, organizers played her on a show court despite her low ranking. And with tennis' global reach--the women's tour travels to 25 countries--Venus could have a much broader platform from which to market herself. "She's definitely sellable," says Daisy Sinclair of Ogilvy & Mather.
But not everyone is so sure. If Venus' father plans to help her nail any more endorsements than her $3 million, five-year Reebok deal, he "better shut up," advises W. David Burns, who runs a sports celebrity booking service. "It's not wise to mention anything negative to the press." Jim V. Andrews, vice-president of IEG Sponsorship Report, which tracks corporate sponsorships, observes that problems on the women's tour could adversely affect her marketability. "You always take a chance that an athlete might blow out her elbow, but this is a more complicated situation," he says.
Whatever tensions had been simmering beneath the surface of the women's tour came out at the Open when Venus and fellow pro Irina Spirlea collided during a changeover late in their semifinal match. "She thinks she's the (expletive) Venus Williams," Spirlea said later. And other pros have criticized Venus for her standoffish behavior. The next day, Venus' father, Richard, made headlines when he called the bumping incident racially motivated. At a press conference following the final, Venus tried to dodge the issue. "I think this is definitely ruining the mood, these questions about racism," she said, chiding the press by adding, "You didn't have to bring it up."
Maybe not, but prospective corporate sponsors probably will. And amidst such controversy, marketing Venus might not be the easy overhead smash it could have been.
Venus' age might also play against her in the marketplace. Most companies now wait to make sure teen athletes' careers pan out before endorsing them. Procter & Gamble Co., for example, got burned by its association with teen tennis star Jennifer Capriati. She signed up to endorse Oil of Olay after turning pro in 1990 and then dropped off the tour. Capriati later resurfaced when police arrested her for possession of marijuana. Today, many companies that use female athletes look for nurturing moms to endorse their products, says O'Neill of IMG, "and Venus isn't Chris Evert."
ADS, BOOKS. Richard Williams hasn't retracted his remarks about racism, but he now says: "There's a tension that comes along with every great new athlete. But I don't see any unusual animosity out there. The tension is just something that is to be expected." His plan is to allow Venus to make one or two commercials and "probably do some books." Richard, who has closely controlled his daughter's career, wants to market Venus as a role model. "I want Venus to set a higher standard for kids," he says.
Other than her two-year-old Reebok contract for shoes and apparel, Venus has no endorsement deals. She is one of the few pro players without a racket contract. Her agent, Seattle lawyer Keven Davis, who also represents Tonya Harding, won't disclose the names of any corporations interested in Williams. But he says 25 companies called the day after Venus lost at the Open. Now, if they'll just call back.