Maria Sharapova shocked the tennis world Monday when she announced she had failed a drug test at the Australian Open. The media and fans were expecting a retirement announcement at a press conference that she had hastily called in Los Angeles, a rumor which Sharapova put to rest with a bit of gallows humor: “If I was going to announce my retirement, it would not be in a hotel with this fairly ugly carpet.” Sharapova said she had been taking the drug Meldonium for a decade for her health, and unbeknownst to Sharapova it was added to the WTA Tour’s banned list of substances on January 1.
Sharapova delivers the news of her failed drug test. (Photo credit: ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
Sharapova, who turns 29 in April, said she was notified of the failed test last week. “I made a huge mistake. I let my fans down, I let the sport down,” she said.
Credit Sharapova and her PR machine at IMG for getting out ahead of this story before any punishment had been doled out by the WTA Tour. Nonetheless, there is now a question mark over Sharapova due to her use of the anti-ischemic drug, which was banned because its misuse by athletes to increase endurance performance, as well as improve rehabilitation after exercise. Meldonium was added to the World Anti-Doping Agency’s list of banned substances as of Jan. 1. If more information emerges that contradicts Sharapova’s story that it was an honest mistake, it could jeopardize her standing as the world’s most marketable female athlete.
Branding expert David Schwab at marketing firm Octagonsays that any Sharapova partners with spring launches will have to reconsider their plans. He adds: “The challenge for Sharapova in a TwitterTWTR -4.38%-era is all the headlines say she failed a drug test and many will not read the fine print to understand the details. She will have to continue to message that correctly.” Schwab says he’d be surprised if any brand terminated their relationship with Sharapova because the drug was legal for 10 years.
The five-time Grand Slam champion has won 35 WTA titles and in 2012 became just the sixth female player in the Open era to win the career Grand Slam, joining the sport’s legends: Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf and Serena Williams.
For all of her on-court brilliance, Sharapova has been even better off the court. Sharapova was the world’s highest-paid female athlete last year for the 11thstraight year with earnings of $29.7 million, including $23 million from endorsements and appearances. She ranked No. 26, including men, among thetop earners in sports.
Sharapova has earned $36.8 million in prize money during her career, which ranks second all-time, but she trails Williams by more nearly $39 million. The real money has been off the court for the 6-foot-2 inch Russian with more than $200 million during her career from endorsements, appearances and royalties, by Forbes’ count.
Nike has been Sharapova’s biggest backer since she was a teen and her world-rank was in the 200s. She has her own line of clothing at the $31-billion sportswear giant. She reaped millions of dollars with her ballet flat, which was the No. 1 female shoe at Nike subsidiary Cole Haan (Nike sold Cole Haan in 2013 and the royalty deal ended for Sharapova). She extended her Nike deal at the start of 2010. The eight-year pact could be worth as much as $70 million, including royalties. Her other current partners include American ExpressAXP +0.73%, Avon, Evian, Head, Nike, Porsche and Tag Heuer.
Sharapova is also expanding her brand beyond the traditional endorsement space. She launched her own gummi candy brand, Suparpova, in 2012 and is adding chocolate this year. Sharapova wants to turn Sugarpova into a lifestyle brand. She hosted her own tennis tournament, Maria Sharapova & Friends, in Los Angeles in December. The two-day exhibition included celebrities and tennis pros.
Sharapova only played in one tournament this year. She lost in the quarterfinals to her longtime on-court nemesis Williams at the Australian Open. It was the 18th straight match where Williams defeated Sharapova. Sharapova, currently ranked No. 7 on the WTA Tour, said on Thursday that she was pulling out of the PNB Paribas Open at Indian Wells due to a left forearm injury.