NEW YORK — It’s getting tougher for tenniswear marketers to serve up an ace in the court of endorsements from the sport’s elite athletes.

That’s largely because in America’s increasingly commercial, celebrity-drenched culture, the promotional pull of endorsers has been compromised for some consumers, who sometimes view athletes who sign million-dollar deals to hype sports products as shills for those brands. Meanwhile, the never-ending media exposure of celebrities of every stripe has made it harder for any one personality to make a lasting impression at a time when people are more interested than ever in a player’s personal traits as well as performance on the court.

Indeed, the ranks of professional tennis may form the grandest intersection between athleticism, fashion and financial winnings in women’s sports, but leveraging the marketing might of its stars has grown to be an ever more tricky, ephemeral quest — even during the heart of the grand slam season, with Wimbledon slated to open next Monday and the French Open concluded earlier this month.

Not surprisingly, megabrands like Nike, Reebok or Adidas — let alone niche players like Fila, Diadora, Sergio Tacchini, Ellesse or Yonex — are loath to ink multimillion-dollar endorsement deals, which typically run for only two to four years, with the sport’s athletes, unless those pros possess just the right blend of performance and personality traits.

The rub is it’s harder to predict which athlete’s image best fits with a brand’s own and is most likely to break through the country’s celebrity clutter, capturing women’s imaginations and spurring them to buy the brand’s tennis apparel. “There is no question more companies are looking at the total package, including many personal aspects,” acknowledged Jill Smoller, director of sports and entertainment at the William Morris Agency, which represents Nike tennis endorsers Serena Williams and Ashley Harkleroad, among others. “Tennis is a young person’s sport; the players are earning a high level of money at a young age,” she added of a circumstance that can complicate the lives of athletes as well as offer advantages.

As Mark Westerman, vice president of global marketing at Fila, observed, “There are risks in anything you do. You do your homework, you develop relationships with the athletes — it’s a two-way street.”Even so, it can be like a high-wire act for marketers to leverage the endorsement of an elite athlete, balancing personality and athletic ability, as both pieces of the player’s persona increasingly are being sold to the public.

For example, Serena Williams, Smoller said, is being marketed as a “global icon, as opposed to a tennis player.” The William Morris executive revealed Williams is considering a variety of possible acting roles for fall, including one in a new reality TV series called “Fast Girls,” and another in a movie that Smoller declined to name, now in development at Fox Searchlight. “Serena’s primary focus is tennis, but she has a broad canvas to paint on — sports, acting, fashion,” Smoller stated.

Several sources from the activewear, tennis and entertainment marketing worlds agreed there are various risks to be calculated in sizing up a potential endorser’s strengths and weaknesses as a marketing vehicle. Some brands are partial to edgier personalities, while others avoid them.

“Nike is drawn, on some level, to athletes who swim against the tide, who have a strong personal view of the world,” offered Ty Montague, creative director in the New York office of Wieden & Kennedy, the athletic giant’s longtime ad agency. “Serena Williams is a player like that — an awesome athlete and occasionally polarizing. Women’s tennis is more exciting than the men’s game right now and it’s because of the Williams sisters,” Montague added. “There are also some up-and-coming Russians who have stirred up interest, like [Nike endorser] Maria Sharapova.”

While saying it’s the game’s personalities that drive the popularity of tennis, Dianne Hayes, director of global tennis at Reebok, contended, “A company’s marketing efforts can create personalities on the [WTA] tour, whether it’s a Chris Evert, a Gabriela Sabatini or a Venus Williams.” Reebok is negotiating an endorsement contract with Venus Williams, Hayes said, to formalize the brand’s “ongoing relationship” with the athlete, one that began when she was an 11-year-old junior player. (Williams turns 24 on Thursday.) Hayes declined to disclose details of past arrangements with the tennis star.Despite the costly and unpredictable nature of tennis endorsement deals, activewear brands continue to pursue them in hopes of conveying images that boost visibility, credibility and sales. In fact, most tennis fans are players, thus forming a foundation for such attempts, Hayes said, citing research conducted by the Tennis Industry Association.

Retailers like Ed Whitehead, senior vice president of marketing at Galyan’s Sport and Outdoor, believe endorsements by elite athletes make a difference. Galyan’s, a chain of 36 sporting goods stores in 17 states, stopped carrying the Puma tennis line when Serena Williams switched her endorsement loyalties to Nike from Puma last December. “We carried Puma pre-Serena Williams’ shift,” Whitehead said, pointing out a brand’s “concerted effort” to sign endorsers and advertise products they’re endorsing energizes consumers and builds a brand.(Puma does not currently distribute tennis apparel in the U.S. and instead of focusing on high-profile athletes is pursuing grassroots marketing.)

“People always want to align themselves with heroes in sports,” Whitehead added.

So said all the sports marketing experts contacted. But it takes more than simply aligning with an elite endorser to ring the register, as evidenced by the 2.2 percent decline in tenniswear sales in the 12 months ended this April, to $199.7 million from $204.2 million, in the prior-year period, found NPD Fashionworld. Unit volume in the category declined a steeper 7.5 percent to 34.1 million pieces of tenniswear, from 37.1 million, indicating firm prices. The decrease in dollar sales came at a slower rate than the 3.4 percent drop in sales of sports apparel, for the 12 months, to volume of $12.1 billion, and was about flat with the 2 percent slide in total apparel sales, to $168 billion.

The decline has come despite tennis’ growing popularity over the past five years. A flurry of high-wattage pros — most prominently Venus and Serena Williams — have sparked excitement over a game that had lost favor in this country during the late Eighties and Nineties, while the number of Americans participating in the game expanded to 17.3 million in 2003, up 6 percent from 16.4 million in 2002 and up 15 percent from 15.1 million in 2001.The decrease in tennis apparel business also has occurred even as women display a growing inclination to don tenniswear off-court, whether that means pairing a tennis skirt with a vintage sweater and trainers, or wearing a velour warm-up suit or a tennis dress, in various social settings, according to retailers and brand executives.

As a result of such challenges, tenniswear brands such as Nike, Reebok and Fila are spending more of their endorsement dollars on fewer, more elite (read: top 10) professionals. The rest is being allocated to up-and-coming pros, like the 15-year-old Czech, Nicole Vaidisova, ranked 176th on the WTA tour, and 19-year-old Floridian Ashley Harkleroad, ranked 88th, to promote Reebok and Nike, respectively, as well as to amateur juniors and college teams, according to activewear marketers, sports agents and tennis coaches.

“It was a slow transition, begun about five years ago, to switch from a quantitative to qualitative approach,” said Reebok’s Hayes. “There aren’t too many players like Venus Williams and [Reebok endorser] Andy Roddick.” Still, Hayes insisted the change made sense because “it was hard to leverage [marketing] across so many stars.”

At the same time, Hayes said, “We’re always looking for younger players — I search diligently in France, Germany and Spain.” Recounting the virtues of Reebok teen endorser Vaidisova, she stated: “She’s tall, blonde, beautiful and showing signs of a great game on court; she’s 6 feet 1 inch tall and has a power game.”

Fila is another brand focusing its tennis endorsement efforts on “an elite few,” Westerman said, pointing to the brand’s deals with third-ranked Kim Clijsters, seventh-ranked Jennifer Capriati and 10th-ranked Svetlana Kuznetsova.

But given the decline in tenniswear sales, some question whether throwing more money behind fewer players is the best way to go.

“Major brands have changed the way they’re investing in athletes,” said Steve Bellamy, president and founder of The Tennis Channel. “Brands like Nike and Reebok are investing in Serena and Venus Williams because they want to be associated with cultural icons, versus trying to sell more apparel and racquets to the rank and file.“Andy Roddick, Andre Agassi, Serena Williams and Venus Williams have gobbled up most of the endorsement money in the last five years and in the next five years, the money needs to be divided among 20 players,” Bellamy added. “This has limited the power of endorsements because those names sold themselves.”

Those efforts appear to be making an impact at the collegiate level, however. Stella Sampras Webster, coach of the UCLA women’s tennis team, said some of her players ask for outfits designed by Reebok for its tennis endorsers and so designated in the catalogues from which the school buys its tenniswear. “The sponsorships have changed a lot,” the 35-year-old Webster said. “When I went to UCLA, sponsors varied from sport to sport. Tennis was sponsored by Ellesse. Now the whole school is sponsored by one brand. It’s been Reebok for the past five or six years and was Adidas before that.”

Adding another layer of complexity to image-based endorsement marketing is the financial pressure brought by such variables as a player’s ranking, which can fluctuate widely and affect a player’s TV exposure in match play, and the number of millionaires — 135, including 10 who have won tens of millions — who have been made by the WTA tour. Serena Williams, for instance, who seeded number two at the French Open, which concluded June 6, has seen her WTA ranking fall to number 11, the first time in five years she’s tumbled out of the top 10. The active player with the most winnings and an endorsement deal cited by the WTA is Nike athlete Lindsay Davenport, who’s won $16 million on tour.

“The exact dollar amount varies according to how many [public] appearances an athlete makes; that’s the anchor of clothing deals,” noted Reebok’s Hayes.

Without question, such appearances are on the rise as tennis has gained greater favor in the past five years, like one slated to be made this week in London by Venus and Serena Williams to promote their new book, “How to Play Tennis: Learn to Play the Williams Sisters Way.” Also in the offing is the launch of Nike’s newest tenniswear to be worn by Serena Williams — a debut that had been slated for Friday, just ahead of Wimbledon’s opening next Monday, but is now in flux, according to William Morris’ Smoller. Nike was mum, citing a quiet period ahead of its earnings report, scheduled for next Thursday, for the company’s fourth quarter and fiscal year.

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