Serena Williams Has a Powerful Message About Her Endorsement Gap With Maria Sharapova

August 31st 2015

Laura Donovan

Wimbledon winner Serena Williams just made a powerful statement regarding the fact that fellow tennis player Maria Sharapova was recently ranked as a more marketable sports star on a London School of Marketing list and makes double in endorsements and appearances as Williams does.

Many have questioned why Williams makes less in endorsements and earns less overall than Sharapova despite that Williams is considered the world’s number one tennis player. In a big moment for Williams, who has beaten Sharapova on more than a dozen occasions, she finally broached the subject in public.

When the New York Times asked Williams about this ranking, she delivered a poised response and didn't knock on Sharapova for collecting millions in endorsements. In 2014, Williams earned $11 million in endorsements while Sharapova took home $22 million.

‘‘If they want to market someone who is white and blond, that’s their choice," Williams said. "I have a lot of partners who are very happy to work with me. I can’t sit here and say I should be higher on the list because I have won more. I’m happy for [Sharapova], because she worked hard, too. There is enough at the table for everyone."

Chris Evert, a former top female tennis player, echoed a similar sentiment to The Times about the look corporations want in endorsement partners.

"I think the corporate world still loves the good-looking blond girls," Evert, a blond-haired woman herself, told the publication. ‘‘Maria was very aware of business and becoming a businesswoman at a much younger stage. She works hard.’’ 

Earlier this year, Forbes contributor Patrick Roshe expressed astonishment regarding the endorsement gap between Sharapova and Williams, "So to be clear, Serena has 4 times as many... [Grand] Slams compared to Maria, but Maria is making double the endorsements."

Roshe added that looks and personality often contribute to athletes' marketability. Even keeping those two factors in mind, however, he could not wrap his head around the fact that Sharapova earns double what Williams earns in endorsements.

"[I]f polling revealed Sharapova’s physical and personality traits were preferred to Serena’s, would the gap be so large to justify earning twice as much in endorsements?" he wrote. "That seems unlikely to me. Does ethnicity and 'corporate bias' play a partial role in explaining the endorsement gap?  In all likelihood, yes. Corporations ultimately hire product endorsers who they think will connect with their client demographics."

Despite her marketability ranking, Williams said the most important thing is breaking barriers for other Black female athletes. She credited tennis players such as her sister Venus Williams for paving the way for her and said perhaps she is doing the same thing for someone else right now.

"We have to be thankful, and we also have to be positive about it so the next black person can be No. 1 on that list,’’ she told The Times. ‘‘Maybe it was not meant to be me. Maybe it’s meant to be the next person to be amazing, and I’m just opening the door. Zina Garrison, Althea Gibson, Arthur Ashe and Venus opened so many doors for me. I’m just opening the next door for the next person.’’

How Serena Williams has responded to body shaming in the past.

Williams' interview about endorsements comes shortly after many criticized another Times article for the language used to describe Williams' body, with some saying it had racially charged descriptions and seemed to mock her appearance. 

"[Williams] has large biceps and a mold-breaking muscular frame, which packs the power and athleticism that have dominated women’s tennis for years," Ben Rothernberg wrote for The Times. "Her rivals could try to emulate her physique, but most of them choose not to."

Anchor Julie DiCaro had a particularly powerful reaction to the Williams story, noting that no one else seemed to be highlighting the appearances of male tennis champions in print:

In a new interview with "Good Morning America," Williams said she has no time for people who choose to talk about her body, as winning the Grand Slam at the U.S. Open was a bigger priority.

"It's me, and I love me," she said. "I've learned to love me. I've been like this my whole life and I embrace me. I love how I look. I am a full woman and I'm strong, and I'm powerful, and I'm beautiful at the same time. I don't have time to be brought down, I've got too many things to do. I have Grand Slams to win, I have people to inspire, and that's what I'm here for."

Actor Mark Ruffalo praised her attitude on Twitter: