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Marketing Maria: Managing the Athlete Endorsement

When Serena Williams took Centre Court at Wimbledon on July 3, 2004, few gave her opponent, 17-year-old Russian star Maria Sharapova, much of a chance. But Sharapova took the Ladies' Singles championship in straight sets, catapulting her into superstardom in the worlds of both tennis and sports marketing.

"That day, Maria's life changed forever, and so did mine," says Max Eisenbud, her agent at sports agency IMG, as quoted in the recent Harvard Business School case "Maria Sharapova: Marketing a Champion."

From a marketing perspective, star athletes can be made or broken over a course of a career or in the flash of an eye—just ask Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick, who was a top endorsement target of clients such as Coca-Cola until he was disgraced earlier this year in a dogfighting scandal.

Superstars throughout the entertainment world are of particular interest to Harvard Business School professor Anita Elberse, be they a movie legend or a third baseman. She wrote the Sharapova case with Margarita Golod (HBS MBA '07) to study and frame classroom discussions on a favorite field of research: the value created and captured by superstars.

With the baseball World Series just completed with a Boston Red Sox sweep of the Colorado Rockies, we asked Elberse to discuss the business of sports marketing and the unique case of Maria Sharapova.

Sarah Jane Gilbert: What is the growth rate of the sports marketing industry? Is it primarily in the United States, or is it a global business?

Anita Elberse: The sports marketing industry, covering everything from television rights to endorsements, sponsorships, and merchandising, is an important sector and growing rapidly. In its Global Entertainment and Media Outlook, PricewaterhouseCoopers estimated that the sports industry accounted for around $50 billion in revenues in the United States in 2007, up from just under $35 billion in 2001. On a global...