By  on December 22, 2000

NEW YORK -- At Reebok, it's all about Venus.

At 20 years old, tennis star Venus Williams has landed what is believed to be the largest endorsement package ever awarded to a female athlete. Her new contract with Reebok is reportedly a $40 million, five-year deal, and one that sets her up as the brand's poster child for global advertising and a part-time designer with a signature line in the works.

Williams, along with Angel Martinez, chief marketing officer, and Sharon Barbano, group director of the women's business for Reebok, discussed their new venture Thursday at The Reebok Sports Club. Leslie Allen Seymour, a pioneer African American elite tennis player, and Donna Lopiano, executive director of the Women's Sports Foundation were also on hand to celebrate, and tennis legend Billie Jean King phoned in her congratulations.

All in all, a good day for Williams.

"This is a big moment in my life. It's part of the journey for women, for people of color and for my whole family," she said. "It's just great. My life has been one dream come true after another."

King, who coaches Williams and her younger sister, Serena, for World Team Tennis, said, "She loves fashion -- I can tell you that. Whoa! Talk about designing fashion all the time."

In fact, it was fashion that kept the Williams sisters from the Federal Cup. As students at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale, the pair had to take their final exams.

But Venus Williams told King they tuned in to the Cup on TV while they were doing their homework.

"I waited until the last minute, so I had to get my mom to help. She was helping me and Serena. It was like an assembly line," Williams said.

For Thursday's occasion, she let down her signature braids and wore a black cap-sleeve Reebok top and skintight black pants. Looking more like a recording artist than a Wimbledon champion, the attire was on the mark -- considering Reebok's aim.

"Our goal is not to show Venus playing tennis because the world will show that. We want to show her as a lifestyle icon," Martinez said. "We made the decision that there is no better athlete in the world to represent our brand."Last week Williams signed a deal with Wilson Leather Goods, and she and Serena, who is a Puma-sponsored athlete, landed an endorsement contract with Avon. With Reebok, Venus Williams will appear in the brand's print and TV advertising and will make special appearances.

Martinez dismissed the suggestion that Williams is Reebok's answer to Nike's Tiger Woods.

"We feel Venus is incomparable. There are a lot athletes who have a very large presence in the public mind," Martinez said.

Reebok, a $2.9 billion operation, has doubled its worldwide media buy to more than 4 percent of the brand's worldwide sales. Berlin, Cameron and Partners developed the campaign, titled "Defy Convention."

"We streamlined our operations to put more money into our media buy," Martinez said. "We were too aggressive with our investments in sports marketing and sponsorships, and at the end of the day we were not getting to the consumer."

Like Nike, Adidas and other athletic labels, Reebok has scaled back on its endorsement deals in recent years in order to play up a few key athletes. And like its competitors, Reebok has struggled to get a handle on the women's activewear market.

To try to get back in the game, Reebok will unveil its Urban Training Collection of footwear and apparel in athletic specialty stores, department stores and sporting goods stores in June. Geared for an active fashion lifestyle and aimed at women between the ages of 15 and 29, the collection has also been a hit in recent focus groups with older women, Barbano said. Williams will appear in advertising and will do in-store events for the Urban line.

In 2002, the Venus Collection -- apparel that can be worn on or off the court -- will be offered at retail. The tennis star is expected to test out a few styles at the Australian Open, including a hooded halter tank, a shawl jacket and wrap tank. Williams will codesign the line.

Reebok does not plan to imprint her name on the product. Different motifs that can be changed from one season to the next are being considered, Barbano said.

The Wimbledon champion will help kick off Reebok's new global ad campaign, during the first episode of "Survivor 2" on Jan. 28, Super Bowl Sunday. She is among the Reebok-sponsored athletes featured in the 60-second spot, which celebrates individuals who have overcome obstacles and inspired others. There is black and white footage of her as a child wearing a Reebok polo shirt, talking about her dream to "win Wimbledon," followed by a blur of colorful shots of her training and competing. The spot closes with an image of her holding the Wimbledon trophy with the voice-over of her childhood goal.Martinez noted that even though Williams grew up in Compton, Calif., where drive-by shootings and corner drug deals were common, she remained "dogged and aggressive" about her athletic goals.

A self-described "tightwad" who saves most of her money, Williams said she doesn't have any grand financial plans for her windfall aside from maybe donating some money to breast cancer research or children's organizations.

During an interview afterward, Williams said she is fortunate not to have to do what she called the "dirty part" of design -- the grading, sewing and sample making. She is happy just to send her sketches. Now her aim is to help design more stylish activewear for the masses.

"Everybody wants to look good, wear the right colors, be in style and be functional. But women want to be able to wear it to the grocery store, to pick up their kids at school or to do whatever they do," she said.

Achieving that can be done with some fairly simple steps. Darts, for example, have been used in other categories for decades but they are now surprisingly more prominent in tennis wear, Williams said.

In terms of designers that inspire her, Williams pointed to two extremes -- Calvin Klein for his clean lines and European designers for their shapes and geometric designs.

Williams said she expects to be designing ready-to-wear in five to 10 years.

"I don't want a really big empire just a couple of shops of my own and my clothes in some stores," she said. "I don't want to work too hard."

Reebok also showed a clip of the making of a commercial that features Williams in diva mode. Decked out in "Breakfast at Tiffany's" inspired dresses, heavy makeup and a wig, Williams defies Madison Avenue's stereotypes of female athletes, by spinning in circles with arms outstretched, driving a Mercedes convertible, and dumping a suitcase on a doorman to hail a cab. She and her older sister, Isha, another attendee, laughed heartily throughout the performance.

Afterward, Isha Williams, a law student at Georgetown University, took a more serious note.

"People never look at women athletes like that. They think, if they're in sports, they must be tomboys," she said. Isha Williams also mentioned that Venus has at least one reservation."She thinks she's too big -- too stocky. She looks fantastic in those spots," Isha Williams said. "I can't wait for the Super Bowl. People are going to go wild."

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