Sidelined Kournikova still a winner
off the court in endorsement arena
By Darren Rovell
Russian tennis beauty Anna Kournikova has a stress fracture in her foot that might keep her out of another three months of action, but many of her sponsors aren't too stressed about her lack of appearances on the court this year.
"All of Anna's programs are long-term," said Phil de Picciotto, Kournikova's agent and president of Octagon's athlete representation division. "Her companies understand that their programs are designed to last throughout a sustained career and everybody recognizes that at some point in an athlete's career he or she will get injured."
While a winning athlete usually provides more exposure for a sponsor, Kournikova has been anything but underexposed. While she has played in only 13 singles matches this year, her immense popularity has yet to wane.
"In her absence, we have learned that interest in Anna hasn't died," said Alex Briggs, a spokesperson for adidas' tennis division. "The media is still interested in every single thing she does and there are not too many athletes out there where you can say that the media covers their every turn."
Case in point: the media buzz generated around her reported marriage to Sergei Federov last month, which was later denied by Kournikova's entourage.
Adidas had the inside track on Kournikova by being a sponsor of the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy, where she honed her tennis skills as a youngster. With Bollettieri as a consultant to the company, adidas signed her when she turned pro in 1995.
"Anna transcends tennis," Briggs said. "She brings in not only the tennis consumer but also those whose interest doesn't necessarily lie with the sport -- both males and females."
Kournikova has been dubbed one of eight adidas "brand symbols." Including the likes of Kobe Bryant, Martina Hingis and Sergio Garcia, brand symbols are endorsers whose products sell beyond the sport category in which they play.
Kournikova doesn't quite convey the winning combination that sponsors always look for -- although she has won 13 doubles titles and was ranked the No. 1 doubles player in the world in 1999. Ranked a career-high No. 8 in singles last November, Kournikova, now ranked No. 19, could slip out of the top 20 with her absence in the upcoming U.S. Open. She has played more than 80 tournaments but has never won a singles title.
"Anna proves that you don't have to excel as much as you have to be well-rounded -- both literally and figuratively," said David Carter, principal of The Sports Business Group, a sports marketing firm. "Just like Jennifer Lopez and Brittany Spears, talent is no longer the driving force. It's all about how she's packaged."
Kournikova can't be criticized for not trying her best on the court just because the majority of her income is made off of it. Venus Williams, who signed a multi-year endorsement deal with Reebok worth a reported $40 million in December, played singles in 10 events after missing the first four months of the season with tendinitis in both wrists.
Part of Kournikova's value lies in the fact that she's a cognizant endorser, Briggs said. "When she sits down after a match and has a jacket on, she makes sure that there is nothing covering her sponsor logos," he said. Adidas received added value when Kournikova wore adidas gear in her new workout video, which Briggs said was not part of her contractual agreement.
Lycos signed Kournikova to a multi-year deal in March. She has appeared in numerous television ads, most recently promoting Lycos fantasy sports. The spot, which plays on the word "fantasy," has a crowd of men believing Kournikova will be playing "lingerie tennis." Fueled by the ad, which ran for the first time this week during ABC's Monday Night Football, Lycos fantasy football registration has tripled from last year, according to Lycos spokesman Ben Sturner.
"Even if she's out right now, the bottom line is that she's still popular and she's still the No. 1 most searched athlete on the Internet," Sturner said. Lycos claims Kournikova has been the most-searched Internet athlete in all but three weeks over the past two years.
"We're all disappointed that she's not playing in a Grand Slam here in the U.S., but people are still as intrigued as ever to see her," said Chuck Fraelich, the company's vice president of sales. Fraelich said its Web site's Kournikova page, which launched two weeks ago, already has received 30,000 unique visitors.
Another Kournikova-licensed product, Gosen, has benefitted from putting Kournikova's picture on her brand of tennis strings. "We had a similar string that didn't sell very well, but as soon as we put Anna on the package (in January), sales doubled," said Dave Kellogg, sales manager of Gosen, one of the world's largest tennis string manufacturers.
Kournikova is far from tapped out in the endorsements world. She still doesn't endorse a beverage, a beauty product or a financial services company, said Doug Shabelman, senior vice president of Burns Sports, a sports marketing firm that links athletes with companies for endorsements. Kournikova was ranked No. 4 on Burns Sports list of top product endorsers for 2001, trailing only Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan and Lance Armstrong.
De Picciotto said his staff fields thousands of media requests and proposals for Kournikova each year. When she isn't playing, the volume of requests increases.
"The nature of the request changes when she is off," de Picciotto said. "We now get proposals for things like exhibition tennis tournaments that would require her to play in a remote part of the world where she clearly couldn't go if she was playing. So some people see that she's not playing and think that they she may be able to do something for them.
"But the interesting facet of tennis -- and it's not always positive -- is that there's really no offseason," de Picciotto said. "An injury-forced break is sometimes beneficial because otherwise it becomes a whirlwind. Therefore, quantum leaps in growth on and off the court can happen during injury time."
While Kournikova won't be playing tennis at the U.S. Open, her sponsors can be comforted by the fact she remains the focus off the court.
Darren Rovell covers sports business for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.Send this story to a friend | Most sent stories
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