Athletic Firms Going to the Net in Quest for Next Tennis Celebrity

Ian Hamilton could hardly believe what he was seeing. While he watched from courtside, an unknown, unranked 15-year-old amateur tennis player was whipping one of the nation's top 18-year-olds.

After the match, which took place nearly five years ago at a popular tennis academy in Florida, Hamilton approached young Andre Agassi and introduced himself as Nike's director of sports marketing for tennis.

"When you decide to turn pro," Hamilton remembers telling Agassi, "you call me."

A few months later, Agassi telephoned. "When we made our first offer, no one else had even submitted one," said Hamilton. Agassi's initial endorsement contract reportedly was for less than $10,000 per year. Sometime in the next few weeks, Nike is expected to announce a multi-year, multimillion-dollar endorsement deal with the long-haired, sometimes brash tennis star. Agassi also has a $7-million endorsement contract with Donnay, a tennis racquet maker in Belgium, and a multimillion-dollar promotional contract with Ebel, a Swiss watchmaker.

The key for Nike was signing Agassi while he was so young. "If you can nail down a future Wimbledon champion when they're 15 years old, you have a reasonably good chance of keeping them for their career," said John Horan, publisher of the newsletter Sporting Goods Intelligence. "Once they have been identified as a Nike or Adidas athlete, their value to a competing company tumbles."

But as the Wimbledon tennis tournament attracts worldwide attention this week, don't look for Agassi. In a much-publicized move, he said he will skip the tournament to prepare for the upcoming U.S. Open later this summer. But the cameras at Wimbledon will likely focus on several other male and female players--some even younger than Agassi--who have also signed huge endorsement contracts with major tennis equipment and apparel companies.

There's 14-year-old Jennifer Capriati, who, with the guidance of tennis great Chris Evert, became a millionaire before even turning pro. She signed a reported $3-million contract with the Italian sportswear maker Diadora, and $1-million contract with Prince tennis rackets. There's Monica Seles, 16, who has a $4-million endorsement contract with Fila to promote its footwear and tennis apparel. And there's 18-year-old Michael Chang of Placentia, who has a reported $300,000-per-year endorsement contract with Reebok, and an estimated $100,000 contract to promote Cathay Pacific Airlines.

As tennis stars are increasingly turning professional at tender ages, eager corporate sponsors compete even harder to find them first. "In each sport, we have a promotion person whose job it is to learn who the up-and-coming players are," said Elizabeth Dolan, a Nike spokeswoman. "One way to do that is to hang around the right places." These paid observers closely follow the young talents at tennis clubs and at junior tournaments. And they sometimes supply the budding stars with free equipment.

But once these young players accept money for endorsements, they lose their amateur status and join the grueling pro tennis circuit. There is growing skepticism that this is such a good thing. Some critics point fingers at parents, agents or corporate sponsors who can sometimes coax wide-eyed teen-agers into making purely financial decisions.

"A lot of them get potential--and I stress potential--offers from big companies," said Cheryl Jones, women's tennis coach at USC. "I think that's the primary factor that influences these kids to become pro."

The rules now permit amateur tennis players to become professionals as early as age 14. But Jones doesn't think that youngsters should be allowed to join the professional ranks until they're at least 18. "It's too much stress to put yourself through at an early age," she said. "Due to the high level of competition, there's a great chance some of these kids will be injured."

Witness Tracy Austin and Andrea Jaeger, who both became professionals as teen-agers but whose nagging injuries may have helped to bring an early end to their tennis careers.

Not surprisingly, the agents--and corporations--behind tennis stars insist that they do not put pressure on the young athletes. Reebok, for example, insists that it didn't lure Michael Chang into its fold when he turned professional at age 16. "His parents consulted with us and with various sports management groups," said Mark Holtzman, director of brand promotions at Reebok. "It was Michael and his parents who felt he was ready for the prime time."

One of Agassi's representatives said Agassi's initial contract with Nike didn't cause any pressure--but actually relieved it. "It was a security blanket," said Bill Shelton, an account executive at the sports marketing division of International Management Group, the firm that represents Agassi. "All of a sudden, he didn't have to worry about getting into the second or third round of tournaments just to pay his bills."

Pet Account Curls Up With Hill, Holliday

Petco, the "department store" for pet supplies, figures that it may have been barking up the wrong tree while trying to establish a national image.

So last week, the San Diego-based 180-store chain placed the bulk of its annual $4-million advertising budget in the hands of the agency Hill, Holliday/Los Angeles. Since parting with the San Diego agency Frankel & Associates last December, the chain has not had an agency.

Hill, Holliday's No. 1 task: Establish an image for the chain. "We're looking to better define our niche in the marketplace," said Frank Bennett, Petco vice president of marketing. Certainly, Hill, Holliday knows something about creating images. It is the agency that created those ads for Infiniti that featured rocks, trees and lightning bolts.

Will the agency, which didn't show Infiniti cars in its initial campaign for the luxury car, show any pet supplies in its Petco ads? Doggone right!

HDM Traveling With Baja Tourism Board

Some people are starting to call HDM/Los Angeles the South-of-the-Border agency.

Last week it won the estimated $3-million advertising business for Baja California Tourism Board. In recent months, it has also won the ad business for the Acapulco Tourism Board and Los Cabos Tourism Board.

The initial campaign for Baja will be an "umbrella" campaign that promotes the destinations of Ensenada, Mexicali, Rosarito, Tijuana, Tecate and San Felipe, said Charles W. Reynolds Jr., president of the Los Angeles office. He said the initial campaign will stress the close proximity of Baja to California.

Admarketing Cooking With Wolfgang Puck

Maybe the third time's a charm for Wolfgang Puck.

For the third time in three years, the master chef's frozen food company, Wolfgang Puck Food Co., has switched Los Angeles ad agencies. The latest agency to win the estimated $2-million annual business is Admarketing. It was previously handled by J. Walter Thompson and, before that, by Fotouhi Alonso Inc.

The frozen food company suffered some financial setbacks several years ago after introducing a frozen dessert line that sold poorly. Now, the company plans to bolster its line of trademark frozen pizzas. Jack Roth, president of Admarketing, said Puck, who owns the chichi eatery Spago, will probably appear in the new TV spots. "The name of the company is Wolfgang Puck," said Roth. "It would be hard to do it without him."

Magazine Puts New Spin on Rock Music

Some Spin magazine advertisers are eagerly anticipating the rock music publication's October issue. Editor Bob Guccione Jr. has turned complete editorial control of that issue over to outspoken "guest editor" and movie maker Spike Lee.

Lee is in charge of everything--from assigning stories to choosing the photos. "I turned the entire magazine over to him, front to back," Guccione said in an interview. The issue will include an interview with troubled Washington Mayor Marion Berry. Another article is tentatively titled, "Fear of a Black MTV." Said Guccione, who noted that his magazine's readership is heavily white: "There are not going to be a whole lot of white people in this issue."

Among the advertisers that Spin hopes to attract are two that have featured Spike Lee in their campaigns: Nike and Levi's.

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