Stephens Emerges as Major Contender, Endorser at Australian Open

Sloane Stephens’s emergence as a Grand Slam title contender at the Australian Open put the tennis world and marketers on alert to the teenager’s potential.

The 19-year-old American lost to defending champion Victoria Azarenka in the semifinals of the season-opening major in Melbourne yesterday, 24 hours after ousting five-time champion Serena Williams in the tournament’s biggest upset.

The run put the Florida native in position to boost her endorsement earnings as a possible Grand Slam champion from the U.S., according to sports marketers. The last American woman to win a major singles title other than Serena or Venus Williams was Jennifer Capriati at the 2002 Australian Open.

“In the sport of tennis, we’re always interested in where the next great American player is coming from,” Darin David, director of sports marketing at The Marketing Arm, said in a telephone interview. “To have a new star come up, people have been waiting on that. If Sloane is the one to step forward, there’s certainly an opportunity there to cash in.”

Stephens’s current sponsors include Under Armour Inc., racket maker Head NV, nutritional supplement manufacturer Usana Health Sciences, American Express Co. and Johnson & Johnson, according to her website.

Potential additions already are lining up after her win against 15-time major champion Williams, said her manager John Tobias, the president of Lagardere Unlimited Tennis, which also represents Azarenka and former top-ranked Caroline Wozniacki.

“We had a number of different reach-outs,” Tobias said in a telephone interview, without giving specific details. “We’ve been in touch with a lot of brands.”

Prize Money

The three-set victory against Williams on Rod Laver Arena, in which she fought back from a set and 2-0 down against a player she had idolized growing up, may prove to be the most profitable part of her campaign, which yielded A$500,000 ($525,000) in prize money for reaching the semifinals.

“If there was one player we could have said from a marketing standpoint you could beat on worldwide television, it would be Serena Williams,” Tobias said. “For her to do that and do it the way she did it was pretty convincing to a lot of brands and a lot of the media that this girl is no flash in the pan. She’s going to be around for a while.”

Looking long term, Tobias said a selective approach would be applied to Stephens’s corporate partnerships and that any new endorsements must have “real authenticity.”

“I really believe this girl is going to be at the top of the women’s game for the next 10 years,” Tobias added. “It’s important not to jump at the first thing that comes to us.”

Sharapova, Li

The only two women to make Forbes magazine’s 2012 list of the top 100 best-paid athletes were four-time Grand Slam champion Maria Sharapova of Russia and China’s Li Na, who faces Azarenka in tomorrow’s Australian Open final.

Sharapova’s earnings of $27.9 million included an estimated $22 million in endorsements with the likes of Nike Inc., Samsung Electronics Co. and Tiffany & Co., according to Forbes. Li, who became the first Chinese player to win a major singles title at the 2011 French Open, ranked 81st with earnings of $18.4 million. Of that, $17 million came from endorsements including Nike, Daimler AG’s Mercedes-Benz and Chinese insurance company Taikang Life Insurance Co.

While female tennis players make strong fashion icons and are attractive to advertisers, winning majors is the key to attracting a broader audience and building a brand, according to Bob Dorfman, the executive creative director at San Francisco-based Baker Street Advertising.

‘Ways to Go’

“Her game has a ways to go,” Dorfman said by e-mail. “If Sloane keeps winning on the court, she’ll certainly win the attention of marketers of everything from cosmetics to computers, fast food to soft drinks, smart phones to sports cars.”

Stephens, the sole teenager ranked in the top 50 on the women’s tour, grabbed her phone immediately after beating Williams to check her messages and said in her post-match press conference that the number of followers of her Twitter account had more than doubled to 35,000. She’s since added another 20,000 followers.

Stephens first picked up a tennis racket at age nine, when her mother, Sybil Smith -- an All-American swimmer at Boston University -- introduced her to the game. Her father was John Stephens, a former New England Patriots running back who was killed in a 2009 car accident.

Family Move

After Stephens said her goal was to be a professional tennis player, her family moved to Florida from California when Stephens was 11 so she could train at Saviano High Performance Tennis Academy in Ft. Lauderdale. Eight years later, she became the first American teenager to reach a Grand Slam semifinal since Williams at the 2001 U.S. Open.

“She’s still got plenty of work ahead of her,” Tobias said. “By no means does she look at herself at the same level as the Williams sisters, especially from the marketing perspective, but she’s got the ability to get there. This is a girl who’s not going to shy away from the media. I think that’s what’s going to cause a lot of brands to be interested.”