Forbes publishes a list of the Top 10 highest grossing female athletes in the world each year, and in 2017, eight of these ten women were tennis players. Among women’s professional sports, tennis is by far the most popular due in large part to the increasingly equal TV face time and prize money the sport’s four grand slams provide competitors. Yet, where in men’s tennis, the most successful players generally earn the largest endorsement deals, results do not always yield similar sponsorships in the women’s game.
For example, consider the case of this year’s Australian Open finalists: world #1, Simona Halep, and world # 2, Caroline Wozniaki. Entering the final, neither woman had won a Grand Slam title and both have historically underperformed on the sport’s biggest stages. Halep’s career was peaking as she earned her place atop the rankings after a grueling ten years on tour. On the other hand, Wozniaki, a former year-end #1 in 2010 and 2011, had fallen out of the top ten in 2015 and 2016, and was on the comeback trail in 2017. Nonetheless, the disparity in endorsement deals between these two women was great. Wozniaki came in at seventh on the Forbes list, earning $7.5 million in 2017, $5 million of which was through endorsements from Adidas, Rolex, Usana, Babolat and Slate Drinks. Across the net, Halep was tenth on the list, and made $6.2 million in 2017, but only $1.5 million of came from endorsements. Where Halep made most of her money on court, Wozniaki earned most of hers off of it.
This pattern continued at the start of the 2018 season. At the end of the 2017, both Halep and Wozniaki’s most lucrative sponsorship contracts–their clothing deals with Adidas–ended. Wozniaki, who held one of the largest clothing sponsorship deals in the history of women’s tennis, re-signed with the company without controversy and was adorned in the iconic three stripes during her championship run in Melbourne. Halep, based on her #1 ranking, attempted to negotiate a bigger piece of the pie (reportedly similar to Wozniaki’s deal), but Adidas refused to budge. Halep’s team pursued other endorsements, but ultimately came back to Adidas asking for her previous contract value. However, Adidas had allocated its entire annual sponsorship budget and chose not reach a deal at all with its former spokesperson. As a result, the first-seeded Halep entered the tournament with no clothing sponsor and sported a custom-made red dress designed by “a seamstress . . . in China, actually.”
Adidas lucked out. Wozniaki won a three set, nearly three-hour battle over Halep in one of the best Australian Open Women’s Finals in recent memory. Yet, one cannot help but speculate that Adidas chose not to invest in Halep for reasons beyond the boundaries of the tennis court. This reason likely lies in marketability. Where Halep is a 5’6”, broken English-speaking Romanian who keeps to herself; Wozniaki is a 5’10”, blonde Dane, who speaks English as if it were her first language, has posed for the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition and ESPN the Magazine‘s “Body Issue.” Previously, she was involved in a very public relationship with golf superstar, Rory McIlroy, and is currently engaged to former NBA Champion, David Lee
In essence, where Wozniaki is the poster child for the WTA on its billboards and in the press, Halep carries with her the image of a workhorse. Where in men’s athletics the workhorse is often celebrated and glorified, in women’s athletics, Halep proves that the marketability just is not there in today’s society. As such, to Adidas, Wozniaki stood out a liaison of the brand, rather than Halep, who would only be recognized for wearing it on court. In the end, Halep’s endorsement negotiations make clear that despite how hard women’s tennis players work to develop their craft on the court, endorsements happen less because of skill, and much more based on the overall persona of the athlete, including personal appearance and media image.