One of the interesting outcomes of the public dismantling of Tiger Woods is the unprecedented glimpse that we have been afforded into the world of corporate sponsorship. Tiger was worth an immeasurable fortune paid for by the likes of AT&T, Gatorade, Tag Heuer, Nike, and Gillette, to name just a few. He was deep in the pockets of a number of corporate giants that used his image to help sell their products. His public destruction has raised interesting questions about how much his sponsors knew or cared not to know about his secret player lifestyle, as long as he kept bringing the bread.
But his demise has raised questions about how corporations go about selecting the individuals in whom they invest. Certainly Tiger’s accomplishments as the best golfer in the world made him a no-brainer of a choice for sponsorship. But his personal life has forced some corporations into taking what amounts to a moral stance, by canceling his contracts. Indeed, many high-paying contracts often contain moral clauses allowing corporations to recoup some of their monies if their investee is caught with his pants on the ground.
When I read that Nike had elected to invest 75 million dollars in Maria Sharapova, I did not seriously question the moral aspect. Other than past allegations of illegal coaching and the early lies about surviving Chernobyl, thus far Maria’s life has remained fairly scandal-free. And frankly, there is a lot of research showing that when it comes to moral concerns, women are a far safer investment than men any day. And we have a lot of buying power too. Remember the film “What women want?”. That was its basic premise.
But is Maria worthy of such a huge investment? There was a time when I would not even had asked that question because of course she was. She still is a fearless competitor who knows how to just go brave. I love the fact that she never backs down from a fight and never gives up a battle. This is one chick who fights to the finish. But with a shoulder that still seems dodgy, a serving motion that remains confused, and no Slam wins since Australian Open 2008 (before that, Wimbledon 2004), she is the last person I would have expected to attract such a massive investment.
This is my way of saying that I don’t understand the corporate mind. In the same way that I do not understand how corporations could have miscalculated so badly on the Tiger Woods brand, I do not get why Nike thinks that today’s Sharapova is worth $75 million. And if you watched her match against Kirilenko yesterday, you saw everything that is currently wrong with Sharapova.
For a start, she double-faulted 11 times. She placed only 61% of her first serves. And she committed 77 unforced errors. 77!!! The match lasted almost 3.5 hours before the spirited and equally fearless Maria Kirilenko, a fellow Russian, ejected Sharapova in the first round of the 2010 Australian Open. The shame. The horror. The head-scratching.
I wonder what Nike is thinking right about now. Is the person who sold them on this deal going to be brought to the carpet? And did you see Maria's box yesterday? Actually it was practically empty - her coach, Michael Joyce (whose courtside coaching I've discussed before), and her agent. There was no sign of Yuri Sharapov. I almost found myself missing the days when he would be the only one in his daughter’s box, come rain or shine. I can’t remember the last time I saw him. Has Sharapova become just a piece of property now owned by folks with deep pockets. And does she understand that all investments are expected to produce returns?
Sharapova elected once again not to play any warm-up tournaments, going instead for high-paying exhibition matches. You already know how I feel about those. These typically playful events are no substitute for proper match play. And serious match play (as opposed to “hit and giggle tennis” to quote Karen the commenter), is requisite preparation for any Slam. As far as I am concerned, Sharapova came to Australia under-prepared and this is why she was booted out. This is not the behavior I would have expected of a $75 million investment.
Don’t get me wrong. I am happy as heck for tennis that one of our own got this kind of dough. Until now, the William sisters have been among the highest paid for their endorsement deals. But at 6’ 2” (Pam Shriver thinks she’s closer to 6’ 3”), blonde, skinny, and allegedly fashion-forward (I don't see it), Sharapova has the look that sells things. She is also clearly an astute business-woman, and has made herself an international brand. But is she still capable of delivering the goods, or did Nike just pour 75 million dollars down the drain? Time will tell.