Few athletes have shown Maria Sharapova’s acumen for exploiting the geometry of a tennis court and the calculus of commercial opportunity.
It’s why the Siberian-born tennis star, who came to the USA at age 7, routinely tops Forbes‘ list of best-paid female athletes ($27.9 million in 2011, $22 million from off-court endorsements).
While conducting casual research on her love of gummy candies, she discovered there was a surprising lack of brand awareness.
“That kind of clicked in my brain,” she says.
With a serious sweet tooth and a nose for how to make a buck, Sharapova knows an opening when she sees one.
Two years later, her new line of luxe candy — dubbed Sugarpova — launches today in New York. Not coincidentally, that’s a week before she’ll launch her own campaign for a second U.S. Open title.
While Sugarpova represents the latest iteration of Sharapova Inc., the lucrative off-court empire the Russian has built since storming Madison Avenuefollowing her 2004 Wimbledon win at age 17, this is different.
Getting some sweet help
What Sharapova wanted was to venture out on her own after being part of numerous successful marketing and ad campaigns from Nike to Canon to Tag Heuer.
The 25-year-old is cutting her entrepreneurial teeth as the proprietor of the line.
“I’ve worked with so many companies over the last few years, whether it was doing a collection or being part of an ad or face of a brand,” she said by phone recently.
“I wanted to own something — something 100% me. Where I make all the final decisions; here I’m involved from start to finish; where I was bringing in my own people I want to work with and investing my own money. I wanted fun and young and nothing too serious. That’s how it came about with candy.”
The latest business venture comes at a time when Sharapova has re-established herself among the game’s elite after a long comeback from right-shoulder surgery in October 2008.
She earned a career Grand Slam by winning the French Open, her fourth major, returned temporarily to No. 1, and added a silver medal in singles at the London Olympics, where she led the Russian delegation at the Opening Ceremonies as flag bearer.
A female Willy Wonka
Those successes aside, she wasn’t naïve enough to think she could become a female Willy Wonka without some help.
That came from candy veteran Jeff Rubin, founder of international retailer It’sugar and creator of FAO Schweetz candy departments inside FAO Schwarz toy stores.
Rubin came up with the Sugarpova name.
“It was a spur of the moment — after a couple drinks,” recalls Rubin of the inspiration over lunch with Sharapova’s longtime agent at IMG, Max Eisenbud. “The second we said it, he looked at me and smiled and said, ‘That’s it.’ It was fortuitous.”
Sharapova had a different reaction: She burst out laughing.
“I thought it was a joke,” she says.
The name stuck, and Rubin was brought in to work as a consultant throughout the project, helping Sharapova and company navigate the industry and source the candy from a factory in Spain.
“This is the most innovative and fun athletic celebrity product I’ve ever seen,” says Rubin, who has a minority stake in the business. “It’s a lot more innovative than the Reggie Bar.”
Sharapova also enlisted Dentsu, the ad agency behind her memorable Canon ads, and Red Antler to help design the packaging and conceive the marketing plan.
Speaking of Willy Wonka, Sharapova admits to her own Veruca Salt moment.
When visiting her line’s manufacturer in Murcia, Spain, in June, Sharapova stumbled upon a licorice-flavored rainbow swirl with a marshmallow center that she couldn’t resist.
Workers were still testing the sweet when Sharapova snatched it right from the machine.
“It was still warm and gooey,” she says.
“It wasn’t part of the collection, but I told them it had better be by Aug. 20,” she says with a chuckle.
‘Sky is the limit’
Sugarpova comes in a dozen packages with names such as “quirky,” “sassy” and “spooky,” each represented by a bold pair of lips, which Sharapova calls “iconic.”
The collection, which features gummies to gumballs (in the shape of tennis balls), will be available at Fifth Avenue retailer Henri Bendel and sold through It’sugar’s worldwide outlets and respective websites, plus sugarpova.com.
It will also be sold in hotel minibars — something the globetrotting Russian said she noticed was lacking in her travels.
A portion of the proceeds will go to her philanthropic foundation.
Eisenbud, who is serving as CEO, says it was the most rewarding project he’s worked on since joining management company IMG in 1999.
He sees more, too, if the concept catches on.
“Fragrance, makeup, clothing,” he says. “The sky is the limit.”
As with the first-strike tennis she will put on display during the U.S. Open fortnight, 2006 winner Sharapova expects the outcome of her candy venture to be up to her.
“My decision is lot bigger now than it was in the past,” she says with a laugh. “So it’d better be right.”