The cult of the superstar

Television and consequently money have REDEFINED modern sport, making phenomenons such as Sharapova the norm. Not the exception, writes S. RAM MAHESH.

Next month, Maria Sharapova will trade her sequined number in black for a business suit, her kitbag of over-sized racquets for a more chic Italian creation in leather, and sit down to talk money. Ok, so the sartorial aspect is wildly made up by an unhealthy mind; the business meeting, however, isn't.

The Russian tennis player is reportedly scheduled to brainstorm with her "partners", marketing specialists for nine companies whose products she endorses, in Florida. The objective: finding ways to extend an already considerable market share; and ensuring legal intricacies like conflict of interest and other such are kept under control.

Apparently Sharapova, when informed that `Sports Illustrated' had named her the best-paid sportswoman earlier this year, said: "It's never enough. Bring on the money. There's no limit to how much you can make." No doubt, the 19-year-old — who looks like she can appreciate the humour in situations off-court — was half kidding. She can afford to. For, surprisingly, Sharapova is also the highest earning tennis player. Imagine that: Roger Federer with seven more Grand Slams, and approximately 22 million dollars from last year stashed away perhaps in one of his country's much revered banks, trails the blonde's 12-month earnings by three million. Bully for women's liberation. Bully for free market economy.

Television and consequently money — or was it the other way around? — have redefined modern sport, making phenomenons such as Sharapova the norm. Not the exception. The world has moved on from the time when spectators with blood lust could indulge in simple pleasures like watching a lion dismember a gladiator.

No strings attached. The lion didn't later flash its canines for a toothpaste commercial. Nor did it broker deals to promote the cause of manicured claws. Gate money kept the registers ringing. The consumer in situ was king. Sport was local; sport was inclusive.

Pulitzer-winning writer Thomas Friedman, in his book `The Lexus and the Olive Tree', explains how the globalisation of sport — the beaming of action to millions of households, making stadium attendances progressively irrelevant — has transformed it irreversibly. The commercial structure of sport has emerged along new fault lines. Nowhere was this better illustrated than in last month's DLF Cup tri-series in Malaysia. Cricket, barring a couple of occasions, was played out to near empty stands. Yet, the coffers of the Board of Control of Cricket in India (BCCI) were swelling by a fair few million dollars every match courtesy telecast providers, Zee Sports.

The recent bickering between the Punjab Cricket Association (PCA) and the International Cricket Council (ICC) on the Host Venue Agreement for the Champions Trophy is about moolah. As is the disagreement between the BCCI and the ICC on the Members Participation Agreement (MPA). In the first case, the PCA said it would suffer heavy losses — to the tune of US$197,000 for each match — since the ICC holds the television and the in-stadia rights. Gate money, which is what the PCA is entitled to, is mere piffle in the scheme of things. The second issue deals with the offspring of big-bucks television: ambush marketing, such a hot potato during the 2003 World Cup.

The dynamic involving sport, television, and money has spawned the cult of the superstar. While sporting bodies such as the BCCI have changed — the NFL in the USA for instance has displayed monetary chutzpah far beyond anything the BCCI's capable commercial wing has thought up, buying stocks in smaller companies that it endorses and cashing in on the profits these companies make because of associating with the lucrative league — the sportswoman and sportsman have kept evolutionary pace.

Ninety percent of Sharapova's earnings are from endorsements. Sachin Tendulkar, who signed a three-year deal for reportedly 40 million dollars with Iconix, the marketing wing of Saatchi and Saatchi, earns a miniscule fraction of it in match fees.

The rapid strides made by wicketkepper M. S. Dhoni in becoming a top brand in India are revealing. "It's been a combination of factors," Jeet Banerjee, CEO of Gameplan Sports, a celebrity management company that handles Dhoni's deals, told Sportstar. "First his performances on the field endeared him to the advertisers. He has single-handedly won games for India. Then there is (the fact that) he is from a small town, he gives people a reason to dream. His unconventional appeal — he had long hair even before he played for India — plays a part."

Banerjee points to the diverse range of companies that want Dhoni as proof that his appeal cuts across demographics and socio-economics. Well, Brylcream is a natural fit; but low-risk financial investments? "It does sound flattering, but GE Money told us their only two sports celebrities, world-wide, are Roger Federer and Dhoni," said Banerjee.

What did he see as the catalyst for this transformation from cricketer to celebrity? "I think the real change happened with Sachin Tendulkar, who still is head and shoulders above everybody else," said Banerjee. "He really showed the way for big money deals. That I would imagine was the genesis of all this. Then Rahul (Dravid) came and he had his own set of unique values — honesty, solidity — which appealed to a certain niche."

Tendulkar's deal with Iconix, while not in the league of Tiger Woods, Michael Schumacher or Michael Jordan, puts him in the second tier of global biggies. While there have been some reports that his brand may be on the wane, and that few companies have approached him since the big deal, the fact that only the top Bollywood star can pull a similar weight underlines how successfully Tendulkar has made the transition.

Making moral judgments on the role of money in sport is at once very easy and very difficult. Does Sharapova who spent years without her mother — at an age others snuggle under comfort blankets catching Saturday morning cartoons — trying to cut it as a tennis player in America deserve her millions? Isn't a First Class cricketer, who has sacrificed his all, getting to share in 26 percent of the BCCI's plentiful revenue better off than he was ten years back? And how much is too much?

The other side has equally compelling questions: doesn't the quality that attracts endorsements — charm, good looks — drive a divisive wedge through the sport? Or worse, as Sepp Blatter alluded to in the context of club football, could the dichotomy in the distribution of money kill sport by ruining the level playing field? Can't the greed for more compromise performance?

"You can't buy a Grand Slam title you know," said Sharapova, after fighting her way to her second. "There are people around the world that have billions of dollars, but no matter how much they want a US Open title, the only thing they can do is get the best trainers and work their butt off. This (a Grand Slam) can beat any sort of paper."

True. But, as Sharapova said elsewhere, "When you win Wimbledon, you're thinking of all the hard work you put in, not the money. But, if you win all four slams, you could earn more than 100 million dollars." What is that saying about everyone having a price?

Top money earners (per annum) 1. Tiger Woods Age: 30 Sport: Golf Earnings: $90m Web Hits: 20,50,000 2. Michael Schumacher Age: 37 Sport: Motor Sport (Formula One, Ferrari) Earnings: $58m Web Hits: 11,00,000 3. Michael Jordan Age: 43 Sport: Basketball (Retired since 2003)

Earnings: $32m (mainly from hefty endorsement income from Nike)

Web Hits: 11,30,000 4. Shaquille O'Neal Age: 33 Sport: Basketball (Miami Heat, NBA League) Earnings: $30m Web Hits: 11,31,000 5. Lance Armstrong Sport: Cycling Earnings: $29.5m Web Hits: 10,20,000. 6. David Beckham Age: 31 Sport: Football Earnings: $27m Web hits: 11,20,000. 7. Andre Agassi Age: 35 Sport: Tennis Earnings: $26.9m Web Hits: 11,00,000. Others:

Valentino Rossi (MotoGP) $30m, Ronaldinho (football) $28.7m, Roger Federer (tennis) $22m.

Sachin Tendulkar, 32, is the leading money earner among Indian sportsmen. His earnings per annum are estimated to be approximately $14m.

Women 1. Maria Sharapova Age: 19 Sport: Tennis Earnings: $25.2m 2. Serena Williams Age: 25 Sport: Tennis Earnings: $13.2m