May the better self-promoter win.

Photographer: Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images

Hey, Advertisers. It's Serena Time!

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”
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I was in the back seat of a cab in Frankfurt during U.S. Open tennis season 14 or 15 years ago -- yes, I really am going to start a column with a taxi anecdote -- when the driver launched into a rant about Americans’ failure to appreciate the Williams sisters.

He was a white German guy, and he seemed more focused on the general perfidy of the U.S. than on the wonderfulness of Venus and Serena. I also don’t think he realized I was American. Whatever the reason, he went on and on and on. Finally, I interrupted.

“Well, I’m American, and I love the Williams sisters,” I remember saying. “Especially Serena.”

I still do, of course. And really, by this point, who doesn’t? Serena Williams’ late-career tear has tennis talking heads finally beginning to declare her the greatest women’s tennis player ever (a win at the  U.S. Open, which starts Monday, and a Grand Slam tournament or two after that would make it official).

She has also become far and away the most engaging, interesting personality in all of sports. It starts with the amazing origin story, learning tennis with her sister on the public courts of Compton, a low-income Los Angeles suburb, under the tutelage of their crotchety dad. But nowadays there is so much more -- the best-buddy thing with fellow tennis player Caroline Wozniacki, the celebrity friendships, the fashion forays, the French lessons, the high-profile romances, the Twitter feed with its 5.2 million followers. That and she just keeps winning and winning and winning.

There is, however, one place she doesn’t win. Writes Bloomberg’s Danielle Rossingh

Even with her dominance and longevity, the 33-year-old Williams isn’t the highest earner in the women’s game. That title belongs to Maria Sharapova, who made $23 million in endorsements in the year ended June to Williams’s $13 million, according to Forbes.

Now, there’s never been any guarantee that the best athlete gets the most endorsement dollars. To take another international sport in which the players often wear white, the best cricket player in the world over the past few years has probably been the South African batsman A.B. de Villiers. The biggest endorsement-getter, by far -- he makes more than Sharapova -- has been the Indian team captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni. That’s because there are a lot more cricket fans with money to spend in India than in South Africa. Meanwhile, in soccer, the recently retired David Beckham outearned much-better players for a decade, presumably because he is cute, blond and married to a pop star.

In women’s tennis, advertisers also seem to believe that cute blondes are best at helping them sell things. Martina Navratilova was the better player, but her rival Chris Evert got the big bucks. In the most egregious case of this, Russian player Anna Kournikova led the earnings lists in the early 2000s even though she never won a major tournament. Her countrywoman Sharapova is a much better tennis player -- if Serena Williams hadn’t been around to beat her at every turn, we might be hailing her as one of the greats. But she is also decidedly and dramatically blond, white, tall and skinny.

Serena Williams is none of those things, and there are all sorts of racial and body-type issues at work here that have already been chewed over by so many other people that I don’t think I’d add much by addressing them. But this isn’t a case like Navratilova versus Evert, where the dour Eastern European with the thick accent didn’t stand a chance against the adorable Floridian. Sure, Maria Sharapova is beautiful and charming. But so is Serena Williams.

More to the point, Williams is vastly more famous, popular and, yes, beloved than Sharapova. She has 5.2 million Twitter followers to Sharapova’s 1.8 million. Her name is recognized by 67 percent of the U.S. population compared with 39 percent for Sharapova. Here’s what Henry Schafer, executive vice president of the Q Scores Co., which measures celebrities’ consumer appeal, told Bloomberg’s Rossingh:

If you wanted to appeal not just to sports or tennis fans, but just the population at large, Serena has a stronger profile than Maria. She’s much more recognizable.

So why have advertisers kept throwing more money at Sharapova than at Williams? One possibility is that Sharapova has just worked harder at it -- she seems to have realized early on that endorsements were her ticket to riches, and has been very smart about courting endorsers and earning their loyalty. Williams does this now too, but to some extent she’s had to play catch up. It also true that Williams is known for the occasional on-court tantrum, which might turn off some advertisers. Still, Sharapova argues with the umpires too, and men’s players have done it with far more ferocity than Williams over the years.

So here’s my theory. The main reason Serena Williams makes less money than Maria Sharapova is a long-standing corporate tendency best represented by the phrase, “Nobody Ever Got Fired for Buying IBM.” Back in the computer giant’s 1970s and 1980s heyday, rivals might have better products, but if you bought one of those for your company and something went wrong, you could lose your job. Whereas if you bought IBM and things didn’t work out, nobody would ever hold that against you.

In sports marketing, no one ever got fired for hiring a cute blond female athlete. It is the default choice. This can be, let’s just say it, racist. It’s definitely lookist. But it’s mainly conservative. In advertising, in television, in movies, the tendency is to look backward. Hiring only people who fit past models of success may often not work, but it comes with fewer consequences when it fails than trying something new does. To get all Keynesian about it, “Worldly wisdom teaches that it is better for reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally.”

Which makes this moment really interesting. The No. 1 movie in the U.S., for three weeks running, is the rap biopic “Straight Outta Compton” -- yes, the same Compton where the Williams sisters learned to play tennis. The most successful non-football TV show of the past season was the African-American family drama “Empire.” The hottest show on Broadway is the “Hamilton,” a hip-hop musical with a gloriously diverse cast. It feels like audiences in the U.S. are ready to embrace entertainers who look and sound a little different. I would guess that buyers of things that advertisers want to sell are ready to embrace Serena Williams, too. 

  1. Navratilova is no longer dour. But she sure came across that way in the 1970s.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Justin Fox at justinfox@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net