By SEVE CHAMBERS
When Serena Williams won her 21st grand slam on Saturday at Wimbledon, it was another milestone in her career. As a professional tennis player for 20 years, her staying power and stardom is undeniable and extends beyond the sport. On that day she tied several records (holding all four grand slam titles at one), broke a few more (oldest player to win a grand slam), and came closer to surpassing two of the greatest in the sport (Steffi Graf and Margaret Court). There is little doubt she will go down as one of the most remarkable athletes of this generation.
It has been pointed out that Williams does not make nearly as much in endorsements as one of her opponents, Maria Sharapova. On the Forbes list of highest-paid athletes for 2015, Williams was ranked 47th, with $11.6 million in tennis earnings and $13 million in endorsements. Sharapova, who is questionably considered a rival of hers, only made $6 million from playing this year, but gets $23 million in endorsements. They were the only women to make the list, which includes a wide range of sports.
What’s more, Sharapova is ranked higher on the list than Serena, at number 26. The fact they were the exceptions to a male-dominated list highlights one issue. But the amount both players make in endorsements tells another story. How could Sharapova, who has not won a major this year and has nowhere close to the amount of grand slams Serena has, have made twice as much in endorsements as her opponent?
Kevin Clayton, who was the chief diversity officer for the United States Tennis Association, honed in on the main reason for this: race.
“African-American athletes aren’t necessarily tapped into because there’s a perception that we don’t have the broad appeal across the general population, as much as we have within segments of color,” said Clayton, who tried to encourage companies to partner with more minority tennis players.
Even for black men in sports like basketball, it is the superstar players like LeBron or Kobe who get the endorsements. Anyone who does not fall into that may have a tougher time getting endorsed.
“A lot of it has to do with race,” said Tamara Washington, executive consultant for Boom Media. “I deal with it all the time because I see it with male athletes as well. I still deal with it on the male’s side, and it comes down to race. They don’t say it, but in so many words, when my client’s counterpart gets a deal and my client doesn’t, they cannot tell me why they did not offer a deal.”
It goes beyond the athletes though, and for Clayton, who also previously worked at the sports company Russell Corporation, extending the reach of the sport with the USTA tied into these problems. To merely have tennis players of different racial and ethnic backgrounds was not enough, and part of his job was to help companies see the demographics they were overlooking.
“For my strategy and the USTA strategy at that time, it was how can we leverage Serena and Venus and other players of color with our sponsors, so that we can collectively bring in an entire community that’s been left out of the sport, into the sport,” said Clayton. “Not only to play, but to watch and to participate in some of the employment opportunities as well.”
Williams’s current endorsers include Wilson, Nike, Pepsi, Chase, and Audemars Piguet. She also has equity deals with HSN, Sleep Sheets and Mission, along with a small stake in the Miami Dolphins. While she may not be raking it in like Sharapova, the doors she can open for other women and minorities will only add to her legacy.
“I do know from mutual friends that Serena is selective with who she chooses to work with, and who she wants to work with,” said Washington. “She has a huge entrepreneurial mind, so she likes to create on her own versus working for someone else, and that plays a part in her obtaining or not obtaining endorsement deals. The more she does, the more doors she opens.”
Ellen Usher, in St. Louis, contributed to this report.
Seve Chambers is a journalist based in New York. Chambers has worked with Fast Company’s social media team, blogged at the New York Times and contributed to the Wall Street Journal, Wax Poetics, Interactive One, WatchLoud and Okayplayer. He has won two awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, but will always remember being at Dave Chappelle’s Block Party. I mean it’s Dave Chappelle we’re talking about here.