How Brand Maria Sharapova Survived A 15-Month Doping Ban
As Maria Sharapova returns to tennis this week, her chocolate line is about to hit the big time.
The chocolate tablets, launched less than a year ago by her wholly-owned Sugarpova brand, will be sold in more than 50,000 locations by the end of 2018 thanks to deals with Kroger Co., the biggest U.S. grocery chain, and7-Eleven, the world’s biggest convenience store chain.
“We hit a home run on chocolate,” Max Eisenbud, Sharapova’s long-time agent at IMG, said in an an interview. “It’s been a game changer for us.”
That’s no mean feat given Sharapova, who was the world’s most marketable female athlete for over a decade according to FORBES, found herself in the middle of the biggest challenge of her career after a failed doping test for meldonium in March 2016.
The former top-ranked Russian will return to tennis after a 15-month absence at the Porsche Grand Prix in Stuttgart, Germany on Wednesday after receiving a wild card from tournament organizers.
Sharapova has been cultivating her brand and growing her business empire since she won the first of five majors at Wimbledon when she was just 17 of age. Since turning pro in 2001, she has made almost $300 million in prize money, appearances and endorsements according to FORBES. In 2010, she signed a record $70 million, eight-year agreement with her long-time sponsor, Nike.
Harvard Business School
Sharapova used her time away from the Tour to hone her business skills. She enrolled at Havard Business School last summer for two one-week courses while she interned at the NBA and a London-based advertising agency. She also invested in Charly, a digital platform that allows users to monitize their time, and worked on her memoirs.
“It says a lot about her, that she was using her time to become a better business woman,” Eisenbud said, adding Sharapova’s increased involvement helped grow the Sugarpova brand in the past year.
“Maria is not afraid to pick the phone to a buyer at 7-Eleven or Kroger and build a relationship,” Pat Kenny, managing director at New York-based Traub Consumer, which took over the daily running of Sugarpova in 2014, said in an interview.
“We’ve had buyers who have said no the first time, but she is very persistent and she has a good story to tell,” said Kenny, who led the creation of Newman’s Own sparkling fruit juices, which became a core brand in the Newman’s Own product portfolio.
Sugarpova’s premium chocolate line, produced by Illinois-based Baron Chocolatier, comes in four different flavors with a retail price of between $3.99 and $4.99 per tablet.
Kenny estimates the company, which is about to sign what he calls “a significant joint venture” in Britain, may be worth as much as $20 million by 2018.
Although Sharapova was provisionally suspended for two years by the International Tennis Federation, her ban was reduced to 15 months on appeal by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), which said in October she bore no “significant fault” and didn’t intend to cheat.
At a March 2016 press conference in Los Angeles, Sharapova said she had failed a doping test for the heart drug meldonium after she failed to realize the medication she had been taking for various health issues for over a decade, and which was commonly used in eastern Europe and Russia, had been added to the banned list from January of that year.
A little over a year later, all bar one of Sharapova’s sponsors have resumed working with the 29-year-old.
Nike, Porsche, Evian and Head all stayed on board, while Swiss watch brand Tag Heuer decided not to renew a previous deal.
“I think it’s a real credit to what we’ve done beforehand, to be able to sustain that type of year,” Eisenbud said. “It’s just a testimony of what she’s done the ten years before this.”
“I don’t think there’s too many athletes that could have had those type of relationships with people, decision-makers that knew her really well and the character of her, and where willing to hang in there, to wait, instead of terminating, but suspending the contract. That was really the key. Everybody had termination clauses and they decided to suspend and wait,” Eisenbud added.
Sharapova’s decision to go public with the news herself also helped.
Kenny, a 30-year veteran of the consumer products industry, called the move by the Russian and her team “a textbook in years to come in how to credibly and honorably deal with a situation like that. And I think the results show how professionally they handled it.”
Chocolate may only be the beginning for Sugarpova, which was founded in 2012 by Eisenbud and Sharapova with a $500,000 investment by the tennis star, and intially started out by selling brightly colored gummies.
“She has global recognition, she has a clear and discernible brand identity and the brand is exportable across various categories,” including consumer fashion, home, houseware and lifestyle, Kenny said.
Strong social media presence
Sharapova’s worldwide name recognition and strong social media presence – she has more than 23 million followers on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram alone – have proved to be a strong selling point when it comes to getting that all-important shelf space in the highly competitive $117 billion global chocolate market.
“Social media is Maria’s secret weapon and she has integrated the candy in her social media,” said Kenny. “One of the things that buyers or chains like 7-Eleven really like is that her fans will go to a store to get the candy when you geotarget the actual distribution. So that’s been a great element of support.”
Although Eisenbud said Sharapova’s break from tennis may extend her playing career to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics because her body has had time to overcome the injuries that plagued her at the start of 2016, he’s already looking forward to the next chapter.
“The one thing I’ve learnt during this year is that when tennis is over and she has a chance to focus on business, its going to be scary, she is so good,” he said.