Why Doesn’t Serena Williams Have More Sponsorship Deals?

By N Oji Mzilikazi

29 September 2015

Serena Williams is undeniably the greatest female athlete of the era, maybe the era’s greatest athlete. Yet, Williams is ranked 47 on Forbes’s list of the highest paid athletes. And of the seven tennis players on the list (Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Maria Sharapova, Andy Murray, Kei Nishikori, Serena Williams), Serena ranks last in endorsement dollars.

Given that centuries of patriarchal dominance has it that males are paid much more than females, even if and when all things are equal, male athletes including the less-successful having more endorsement deals/making more money than Serena Williams is par for the course, but Maria Sharapova?

Maria Sharapova cannot light a candle to Serena. Serena has had 17 consecutive victories over Maria. Serena has twice the amount of career titles owned by Sharapova.

Serena leads all active players with 21 Grand Slams. Next is Venus Williams with 7, then Maria Sharapova with 5.

Sharapova has not defeated Serena since 2004. But since 2004, Sharapova has been the world’s highest-paid female athlete.

Serena can’t touch Sharapova when it comes to sponsorships. And it has everything to do with Serena Williams’ blackness.

Martina Hingis whose career was brought to a premature end when she failed a drugs test for cocaine during Wimbledon said of the Williams sisters: Being black only helps them. Many times they get sponsors because they are black.

Contrary to Hingis’ musing, the blackness of Serena and Venus is precisely why sponsors do not knock on their doors as they ought to.

Economics is at the heart of racism. Racial discrimination is rooted in economics. Hence, racism enduring support – even when its tenets are both scientifically and intellectual debunked. Racial discrimination is the lived experience of people of African descent, yet the insidiousness that black skin accrues unwarranted privileges and benefits still hold sway.

Anna Kournikova never won a WTA singles tournament or reached a singles Grand Slam final, yet Kournikova was able to make a personal fortune out of endorsements.

Kournikova earnings allowed her parents to live off her. And so much so, they sued her to protect their continued feeding.

Kournikova fulfilled the stereotypical white and blond beauty template. The one that causes white prepubescent boys and white teenage boys to drool, adult white boys to have sexual fantasies, and old white men desirous of having the person as trophy or be in their company,  and young girls to admire, aspire to become or imitate.

Kournikova was tennis’s favourite pinup girl. Boys loved Anna Kournikova. Girls loved Anna Kournikova. Tennis tournaments loved Anna Kournikova. Wall Street loved Anna Kournikova.

Kournikova was given centre courts to play all her tennis matches, and Kournikova landed “A class” sponsors like Charles Schwab, Adidas, and Omega Watches.

Dubbed the “most successful loser in sports,” Kournikova even eclipsed Venus Williams, with all her career titles including Grand Slam wins, as the highest-paid female athlete.

Many tennis pundits didn’t like that Venus Williams and Serena Williams were winning numerous titles and increasingly were the last two standing in Grand Slam finals. So they poisoned the airwaves, television’s watching audience and the printed page with innuendos and bias. They needed a white heroine…

When Maria Sharapova defeated Serena Williams to claim the 2004 Wimbledon title, she was immediately crowned tennis “It” girl.

The tennis establishment saw Sharapova as the long awaited sexy and beautiful white hope to “rescue” the WTA from the clutches of the “Amazonian” Williams’ sisters. They gushed over her win as one for the ages, and a lot was made of it being in straight sets.

Concerned solely with white demographics, Wall Street saw Sharapova as the perfect choice to advertise/sell their product and services. Thus, Sharapova was able to secure contracts with some of the biggest companies, and remain the world’s highest paid female athlete — for so long.

In their eyes, despite the inroads and successes of Black and Asian tennis players, tennis is still a white country-club sport.

In their eyes, Serena Williams doesn’t cut it.

In spite of her athletic ability and talents, celebrity status and visibility, her downright African phenotype and “militant” blackness as opposed to the “subdued and downplayed” blackness of the likes of Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan negates her bankability.

In 2000, Serena boycotted the Family Circle Cup in Hilton Head, South Carolina, over the Confederate Flag being flown over the State Capitol. Serena boycotted Indian Wells for 14 years on account of the boos and racial slurs thrown at her father and Venus when they came to see her contest the 2001 finals.

In embodying the “skinny white chick,” Maria Sharapova with her one-dimensional ball-bashing game, woeful court movement, and banshee wailing is seen as worth every penny.

Meritocracy is a myth…