She was the chosen one, the African American prodigy with the celestial name. She rose from humble beginnings in Compton to win two Olympic gold medals, take Wimbledon by storm and sign a shoe deal making her one of the highest-paid athletes of all time.
Venus Williams, 22, was unquestionably the world’s best female tennis player. Kid sister Serena seemed to tag along -- good enough to give chase on the court, but mostly adding novelty to the most famous sister act in sports.
No more. Serena has grown up. She has beaten Venus in four straight Grand Slam finals, including their hardest-fought battle at last week’s Australian Open. Along the way, she has dealt a wicked backhand to the marketing world’s notion of who is the most bankable sister.
Ranked No. 1, the increasingly flamboyant Serena could soon eclipse Venus in both celebrity firepower and endorsement muscle, a glam slam that is expected to lead to a record-setting shoe deal of her own.
“As Serena has matured on the court and become more successful, her personality has emerged,” said business manager Stephanie Tolleson, who represents both sisters. “It changed her marketability because companies got a better understanding of Serena as a person.”
Case in point: Toothpaste.
Serena, 21, has been pushing her agents for years to find a way to capitalize on her neon smile. After she became the top-ranked women’s player in July, she inked a $500,000 deal to star in a Close-Up commercial. During a special summer promotion, she will be featured on the box, replacing the smiling couples that traditionally have been used.
Indeed, both Venus and Serena long ago entered the marketing lexicon as the rarest of properties: athletes who transcend their sport and are on a first-name basis with the public. Tiger, Michael, Kobe, Shaq -- showcased in major media markets or the world stage, these “marquee” sports celebrities continue to draw big promotional deals even as cost-conscious firms have stopped spending on second-tier athletes.
The appeal of Venus and Serena goes beyond set points and 120-mph serves. Advertisers love their shared story of hitting flat tennis balls on the public courts of Compton, only to overcome barriers of race and class to rule a white country-club sport.
“Both of these gals, I think, are seen as winners,” said Phil Dusenberry, recently retired as chairman of the New York-based BBDO advertising agency, known for using celebrities in commercials. That’s why they’ve been signed as a package deal by McDonald’s Corp., Wilson tennis racquets, Avon cosmetics and chewing gum giant Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co., which broke its ban on celebrity ads by hiring them to represent the Doublemint brand.
But the reality is that Serena’s game and marketability have moved beyond doubles.
On Oprah in November, with her sister looking on, Serena talked about finally breaking free of Venus’ gravitational pull.
“There were two Venus Williams in the Williams family,” she said, describing how she grew up copying her sister in dress, moods, even ordering the same restaurant food. That changed about two years ago. “It was really tough for me to finally stop being Venus and become the person who I am -- Serena.”
Although Serena shares a mansion with Venus in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., she recently purchased a $1.4-million Los Angeles condo of her own. During the U.S. Open last summer, she set tongues wagging with her bleached blond hair and a black, skintight “catsuit.” Venus may have won ESPN sports awards last year for Best Female Tennis Player and Athlete of the Year, but it was a buff Serena who showed up to collect the hardware for her sister and steal the show in a lilac Versace dress with plunging neckline.
As Venus, who has fallen to the No. 2 spot, quietly busies herself with an interior design business, Serena is taking acting lessons, meeting with entertainment honchos and hanging with the likes of rapper Jay-Z. Once teamed with Venus for an appearance on the “Hollywood Squares” game show, Serena appeared solo in a recent episode of ABC’s “My Wife and Kids.”
Her agent says Serena is looking for parts that will broaden her appeal beyond sports.
“She would like to play a victim. She would like to go on a police show. She would like to be in a thriller or a mystery,” said Jill Smoller, her agent at the William Morris Agency. “She’s crossed the line of exposure where the people who don’t know tennis know who she is.”
Inventory shipments at Play Along Toys tell the story. The Florida company, which made millions on a Britney Spears doll, paid the Williams sisters $125,000 each for a license to make Venus and Serena figures.
The first batch, shipped in fall 2001, gave retailers four Venuses for every two Serenas, a nod to the older sister’s status at that time as the better player.
By the time the second shipment came around last spring, the number was even. Had the line not been canceled because of the slumping economy, company President Jay Freeman said, he would have changed the breakdown again, shipping four Serenas for every two Venuses.
“Kids always want to buy the winner,” Freeman said.
The role reversal of the two sisters has added a new twist for tennis buffs and amateur shrinks who scrutinize the sisters’ facial expressions and sift through their comments for any hints of jealousy. But the truth is that Venus and Serena remain each other’s biggest fan and closest confidant. Together, they have won six Grand Slam doubles titles, along with matching gold medals in the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
“They play hard, but at the end of the day, they’re still going to be sisters,” said Keven J. Davis, a New York attorney who represents both women in their sports-related promotional deals, including the shoe contracts. It was Venus who shined the brightest growing up. At 9, she beat her sister in the finals of a 10-and-under tournament in Arcadia, then offered Serena the trophy when the younger girl cried. They didn’t play each other competitively until Venus and Serena met as pros in the 1998 Australian Open. Venus, then ranked 16th in the world, beat Serena, ranked 53rd, in the tournament’s second round.
Venus went on to rule women’s tennis, piling up 28 singles titles, including a two-year sweep of storied Wimbledon and a gold medal in the 2000 Summer Games.
Later that year, she capped her athletic success by signing a $40-million, five-year deal with Reebok, putting her in the stratosphere of sports endorsers with Tiger Woods ($100 million, five years with Nike) and Michael Jordan (estimated $40 million a year from Nike and others). Still, there were signs of Serena’s approaching greatness -- and the first hints of uncertainty in the marketing world.
It was Serena, not Venus, who in 1999 won the family’s first Grand Slam singles title -- the U.S. Open -- prompting a visibly upset Venus to hide under the hood of her jacket during award ceremonies. Richard Williams, who guided his daughters’ careers, had always predicted that Serena would become the better player. Her success has driven up the Williams sisters’ collective endorsement price tag to the point that some companies are balking at signing both, said Tolleson, senior vice president at IMG and director of women’s tennis. She said firms may begin choosing between Venus and Serena, depending on the product being promoted, thus broadening the marketplace reach of the sisters to different audiences. Venus, Tolleson said, appeals more to a Vogue magazine crowd, whereas outgoing Serena is more MTV.
The company with the biggest stake in the sisters’ future, for now, is Reebok. It signed Venus back when her grip on the No. 1 spot seemed as strong as her serve. Reebok officials say they have no worries about Venus’ fade, because they are confident she will remain an elite player. “There certainly is a risk when you sign athletes to multiyear endorsement agreements, but we can’t worry about that,” said Denise Kaigler, Reebok’s vice president for global communications. “We can’t operate a business and worry the next day something’s going to happen to one of our athletes.”
Puma has a lot on the line too. Serena signed a five-year, $13-million guaranteed shoe and tennis clothing contract in 1998, when she was still in her sister’s shadow. That pact expires this month, and Serena is likely to seek more than the $40 million her sister is receiving from Reebok, said Dave Rineberg, a Florida tennis pro who was both sisters’ hitting coach for five years.
“Venus set the standard, and Serena’s agents and everybody are going to try to beat that, try to take it a step higher,” Rineberg said. “I guarantee that, based on her ranking, Serena feels she deserves more money than Venus.”
A bidding war may be underway. A source says Nike has expressed interest in signing Serena, while Puma spokeswoman Lisa Beachy wouldn’t discuss any proposals by her firm. She acknowledged, however, that the company almost certainly will offer Serena more than her current deal “because, obviously, her market value has increased.”
Serena herself said as much when, after breaking Venus’ winning streak at Wimbledon last year, she was asked if she was worth “major bank.”
“I definitely am,” the new champion said. “I’m really exciting. I smile a lot. I win a lot, and I’m really sexy.”
Times staff writer Lisa Dillman contributed to this report.
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Serena Williams has a 7-5 edge in pro matches played against her sister. The chronology:
1998 Australian Open
Venus wins in second round,
1998 Italian Open
Venus wins quarterfinal,
Venus wins final, 6-1, 4-6, 6-4.
1999 Grand Slam Cup
Serena wins final, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3.
Venus wins semifinal, 6-2, 7-6.
2001 Indian Wells
Serena wins semifinal by
default; Venus withdrew
because of injury.
2001 U.S. Open
Venus wins final, 6-2, 6-4.
Serena wins semifinal, 6-2, 6-2.
2002 French Open
Serena wins final, 7-5, 6-3.
Serena wins final, 7-6, 6-3.
2002 U.S. Open
Serena wins final, 6-4, 6-3.
2003 Australian Open
Serena wins final, 4-6, 6-3, 7-5.
Source: Women’s Tennis Assn.
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Pair of aces
Venus and Serena Williams are frequently signed as a package, but their separate shoe contracts create a major difference in endorsement and license earnings. Last year Venus made at least $12.9 million in annual and renewable fees, compared with $7.8 million for Serena. A look at their deals:
*--* Company Product Deal Value Date Avon cosmetics $1 million-plus 2000-03 a year each Wrigley chewing gum $1 million-plus 2001-03
a year each McDonald’s fast food $1 million-plus 2002-05 Nortel Networks telecommunications $800,000 2000, a year each expired Wilson tennis rackets $750,000 Expired; a year each could be extended Sega video games $500,000 2001, each, one-time fee renewable Coca-Cola Aquarius $500,000 2000, sports drink each, one-time fee expired Play Along Toys dolls $125,000 2000, each, one-time fee expired THQ video games $100,000 2002, each, one-time fee renewable
*--* Company Product Deal value Date Reebok athletic shoes $40 million 2000-05 and apparel Wilsons the clothing line $250,000 to 2000-03 Leather Experts $500,000 a year
*--* Company Product Deal value Date Puma athletic shoes $13 million 1998-2003, in and apparel negotiation Unilever Close-Up $500,000 2002 toothpaste one-time fee Konami video games $350,000 2001, plus royalties, renewable one-time fee
Numbers do not include incentives, which can range from $100,000 for making a magazine cover to up to $1 million for finishing as the year’s top female player.
Sources: Burns Sports, newspaper reports, marketing sources.