Ad Vantage: The Williams Sisters

The tennis phenoms take off as endorsers

The 2001 pro tennis season is barely under way, and already Venus and Serena Williams are heading for a grand slam--in endorsements, anyway. Right after Super Bowl XXXV on Jan. 28, Venus' five-year, $40 million deal with Reebok International (RBK)--the richest ever for a female athlete--will kick off with a commercial on the hot CBS series Survivor 2. The next day, Venus, 20, and her sister, 19, will begin promoting Avon Products Inc. (AVP) And in an about-to-be-announced campaign, the two will soon be chomping Wrigley's gum (WWY).

Wait, there's more. Venus will also design a line of clothing for Wilson's The Leather Experts Inc. (WLSN), and she'll join Serena in Nortel Networks Corp. (NT) print ads and a Sega video game (SEGNY). All told, Venus will earn some $20 million annually over the next few years, and Serena $16 million--not counting what they scoop up on the court. "This is a breakthrough," says Bob Williams, president of Burns Sports Celebrity Service Inc. "For the first time, advertisers are paying females at a value normally associated with male athletes."

POWERFUL AGENT. What a difference a powerful agent can make. A year ago, the sisters signed with International Management Group (IMG), the sports marketing and management giant responsible for brokering Tiger Woods's record-breaking $100 million Nike (NKE) deal. Prior to joining IMG, their deals--primarily with Reebok, Wilson Sporting Goods, and Puma (PMMAY)--were limited by their controversial father, Richard. He wanted to avoid what family lawyer Keven J. Davis calls a "Jennifer Capriati situation," referring to the player who as a teenage marvel ran into drug and legal problems. "He turned down quite a few contracts," said Venus in a phone interview from the Australian Open. "He wanted us to be regular girls."

Walking away from millions in potential endorsements may have seemed nutty at the time, but Dad, who had his daughters sign on with IMG, looks like a genius now. Since late 1999, the sisters have gone through a professional and personal transformation that is likely fetching them higher price tags than they could have expected before. Venus took two grand-slam titles and Serena one, plus the sisters grabbed Olympic gold in Sydney. Off have come the beads and braces, revealing polished young women. "The package is now complete," says Stephanie Tolleson, head of IMG's women's tennis unit. "They have beauty and intelligence, and they're winning."

DAD'S ANTICS. Selling that package did present some challenges. For years, the sisters were upstaged by their father's boastful behavior: He would sit on the sidelines with signs that said things like: "It's Venus' party, and no one was invited." But as IMG coaxed the sisters out of their father's shadow, even companies that don't often use athletes as endorsers became intrigued. Avon had hired Olympic stars for short-term campaigns in the past, but the Williams sisters were the first sports stars it signed to a three-year contract. That they rose from a dirt-poor neighborhood in Compton, Calif., was only part of their appealing story. "What was critical is that they're sisters with a warm, loving relationship," says Janice Spector, Avon vice-president for advertising. "Avon has always been about the one-to-one relationships between women." And the fact that the sisters won't be wearing tennis outfits in all the Avon ads is testament to a newfound image that goes beyond athletics. "Venus is far more interesting than just tennis," agrees Angel Martinez, chief marketing officer at Reebok.

As for the controversies--the father's antics, the sisters risque outfits, and their tendency to stick to themselves--those only strengthen the duo's appeal. "More attention means more money," says Billie Jean King. "I sometimes got in trouble for being a hothead, but now I think it's a positive."

Although there may be a few more endorsement deals ahead, like Tiger, the sisters want to limit themselves to a handful of name-brand companies. Still, they're starting to think like marketers. "I told IMG I'd like to endorse something having to do with my smile," says Serena. "People always tell me I have a great smile." Crest, are you listening?

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