- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 3, 2003

Anna Kournikova still has not won a professional singles title. A back injury is keeping her out of the ongoing U.S. Open. A job as a reporter for USA’s U.S. Open coverage, which included several awkward and uncomfortable moments, ended after just one week.

Still, the Russian starlet remains the talk of New York and, more lucratively, one of the most powerful endorsers in sports.

Though Kournikova is not playing in the U.S. Open, being held at the Arthur Ashe Tennis Center in Queens, she recently conducted a high-profile appearance with Microsoft in Manhattan to promote a series of new Xbox games. Kournikova also debuted an aggressive ad campaign for the Multiway Sports Bra, manufactured by lingerie company Berlei. Her yearly endorsement total is now estimated at $15million, ranking her among the leaders among female athletes.

Kournikova, 22, is just one of a growing legion of younger, less accomplished athletes now in peak demand for corporate endorsements. Eighteen-year-old LeBron James, who has yet to play in an NBA game, already holds more than $100million in endorsement contracts, including the $90million pact with Nike that is the company’s second-largest single deal with an athlete.

Carmelo Anthony, also entering his rookie NBA season, signed an estimated $21million deal with Nike in May. Houston Rockets center Yao Ming and Florida pitching phenom Dontrelle Willis, both relative newcomers to the pro ranks, also are widely coveted, with Yao already on board with a battery of sponsors, including Apple and Visa.

None of these athletes has won any kind of American professional championship, MVP award or major statistical title. Kournikova is No.146 in the world tennis rankings.

Decorated sports legends like Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, Arnold Palmer and Jeff Gordon still generate top endorsement dollars, largely through multiyear pacts signed several years ago. But precisely when most other facets of the sports industry, including TV networks, insurers and teams themselves, are cutting costs wherever possible, Madison Avenue is arguably taking more chances than ever.

“It’s a lot like the dot-com investing we saw in the ‘90s. Everybody is after the next big thing,” said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. “It’s harder than ever to get mindshare of younger fans and younger consumers. But it’s these [sports] figures that youth seem to gravitate toward, so that’s where the companies are going.

“This is also about a lot more than sports, though. A number of these younger figures are being used in lifestyle marketing efforts that have less directly to do with sports. To do that, you need a younger, hipper figure, and what they’ve done on the field is less important.”

It’s still a long, way from the “Tastes Great, Less Filling” ads Miller Lite used for years with retired or older athletes. David Schwab, director of strategic marketing and media for Octagon, which represents Kournikova, says the recent flurry of new deals and hype surrounding her were not the result of predetermined strategy.

“We’re not sitting here planning events to just get her out there and get publicity,” Schwab said. “This is being driven by the other side of the table. Obviously, she’s still very much in demand. But tennis is not the whole equation for her. She’s more than just about tennis. If she was just about tennis and still getting this kind of attention, then we’d be surprised.”

Whereas Kournikova once rose to No.8 in the world rankings and reached the Wimbledon semifinals at age 16 and Anthony led Syracuse to this year’s NCAA title, James’ on-court resume goes no further than dominating the Ohio schoolboy ranks and parlaying that into a selection as the No.1 overall draft pick.

But Corporate America cannot get enough of James, hoping it is latching on to the next Jordan. Beyond the history-making Nike deal, James has inked deals with Upper Deck, Coca-Cola and Winner International, maker of the Club steering lock, with other key endorsement categories like fast food and automotive on the way. Further fueling the rush are feverish sales of replica Cleveland Cavaliers jerseys bearing James’ No.23, which already have neared the quarter-million mark in less than three months.

“LeBron James has brought more excitement and anticipation to the game of basketball than any player in recent history, and we think he’s just getting started,” said Jeff Dunn, president of Coca-Cola North America.

Swangard and other industry analysts say the corporate rush to youth likely will continue unabated until one of the can’t-miss kids fails to back up the hype.

“What everybody is waiting for is the next big miss,” Swangard said. “Until then, we’re definitely looking at more of the same. The bubble bursts when this business gets its version of a Pets.com and has that high-profile flame-out.”

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