Maria Sharapova has spent the past decade-plus cultivating her brand. She was a winner on and off the court. She was smart, attractive, personable and a dominant athlete. Her goal was to build the candy company she started, Sugarpova, into a lifestyle brand, which lived long after her playing days were done. Sharapova, her sponsors and her team at IMG built a compelling narrative that helped Sharapova earn $285 million during her career and cement her as the world’s highest-paid female athlete for 11 years running.
Now it could come all crashing down after a failed drug test at the Australian Open for taking Meldonium, a heart medicine which improves blood flow. Sharapova said she has been on the drug for a decade for various health issues, but it was added to the list of banned substances by the World Anti-Doping Agency on Jan 1, because it can improve endurance in athletes.
Sponsors are running for the hills from the 28-year-old tennis star. Tag Heuer first partnered with Sharapova in August 2004 after the then 17-year-old’s breakthrough win at Wimbledon. Tag was in negotiations to renew their most recent deal, which expired at the end of 2015, but no longer. The company released a statement Tuesday: “In view of the current situation, the Swiss watch brand has suspended negotiations and has decided not to renew the contract with Ms. Sharapova.”
Sharapova inked a three-year deal with Porsche in 2013, but the automaker is distancing itself from the world’s No. 7 ranked player. Porsche has “chosen to postpone planned activities” with Sharapova “until further details are released and we can analyze the situation,” the company said on Tuesday.
The biggest shoe to drop was Nike NKE -2.47% which released a statement that read: “We are saddened and surprised by the news about Maria Sharapova. We have decided to suspend our relationship with Maria while the investigation continues.”
Sharapova is the latest Nike athlete to run into trouble. In recent years, the $31-billion-in-sales sportswear giant has dropped other scandal-plagued athletes, including cyclistLance Armstrong, running back Adrian Peterson, quarterback Michael Vick, running back Ray Rice and sprinter Oscar Pistorius. Nike cut boxer Manny Pacquiao last month after his offensive comments regarding same-sex relationships. Sharapova’s current deal with Nike signed in 2010 is worth up to $70 million over eight years, including royalties and bonuses.
Sharapova burst on the scene in 2004 when she won Wimbledon. Her only endorsement deals at the time were Nike and Prince, but that quickly changed. The 6-foot-2 Russian was a marketer’s dream and signed deals with Tag Heuer, Canon , Motorola, Colgate-Palmolive CL +0.67% and others. The value of her Nike deal doubled. She banked $18 million from prize money, appearances and endorsements in the 12 months after her Wimbledon win. More deals followed with Land Rover, PepsiCo PEP +0.46% and Sony .
Sharapova became the biggest star attraction on the WTA Tour. She could command as much as $500,000 for an exhibition. She did deals unheard of by other female athletes like a multi-million agreement to put her name on a residential tower in India. For multiple years, her ballet flat was the best-selling shoe at former Nike subsidiary Cole Haan and Sharapova received royalties on every pair sold. She sold the North American rights to her memoir for seven figures in the fall.
Sharapova has racked up $37 million in prize money during her career, which is good for second-best all-time, but it is not half as much as Williams earned from winnings. But despite the less-dominant tennis resume, Sharapova has dramatically out-earned Williams off the court.
Sharapova had her best financial year yet in the 12 months from June 2014 to June 2015 with earnings of $29.7 million, including $23 million off the court. Sharapova’s career earnings from sponsors, exhibitions and royalties are nearly $250 million, by Forbes count, since she turned pro in 2001 and a total of $285 million, including prize money.
Her other remaining sponsors are Avon, Evian and Head. Sharapova also inked a deal last year with American Express AXP -0.64% to promote the payment solutions brand at the next two U.S. Opens.
Sharapova has been preparing for her next act with her company Sugarpova, which she launched in 2012. The company started selling gummy candies and was adding chocolate this year with the goal of expanding into things like home goods and sleepwear. Sugarpova is profitable, according to her agent, but all of the money is going back into the company.
Tennis fans are a wildly attractive demographic for companies to reach. They tend to be wealthy with high disposable incomes to spend on tennis equipment and shoes, watches and cars. It is also one of the most global sports with the WTA and ATP Tours crisscrossing the world for events with an athlete base with dozens of nationalities. The current WTA top 10 features women from nine different countries.
No one has been more attractive to reach those sponsors than Sharapova. Research firm Repucom tracks people’s attitudes towards celebrities across seven attributes for itsCelebrity DBI. Sharapova has the top global DBI of any female athlete with only Serena Williams in the same time zone in terms of her score. Sharapova ranks among the top 15% of nearly 4,000 celebrities in the U.S. She ranks highly on both “aspiration” and “endorsement.” Her “trust” attribute is on par with baseball-legend Derek Jeter. Almost all of her attributes are likely to take a dive with the failed drug test. The one likely to rise: awareness.