Game, Check and Match: The Business of Women’s Tennis

Women's tennis is winning new audiences and making the richest sportswomen in history even richer

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REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

Maria Sharapova hits a return to Petra Kvitova during the Wimbledon final on July 2, 2011

For fans of women’s tennis, Wimbledon isn’t just a chance to see great athleticism. It’s an opportunity to watch the world’s richest sportswomen trying to obliterate one another.

As I discuss in my story “Glam Slam,” which is printed in the July 2 issue of TIME International, women’s tennis is, far and away, the most lucrative of any female sport. Of the top 10 highest-earning sportswomen, seven play tennis. Maria Sharapova tops the list, having raked in $25 million in prize money and endorsements in the 12 months leading up to July 1, 2011. According to Max Eisenbud, Sharapova’s agent, the 25-year old Russian is poised to sign two more lucrative sponsorship deals in the wake of her June 9 victory at the French Open. That’s on top of her existing sponsorship deals with blue chip brands like Evian, Samsung, Tiffany, and Nike. Success at Wimbledon, which begins June 25, will only add to her marketability.

(PHOTOS: Thirty Legends of Women’s Tennis)

Blond, statuesque and 6’2″, Sharapova has used her Hollywood looks to help build her brand. Now she is leveraging all that she has learned working with big companies to launch Sugarpova, her own candy line featuring gummy worms and gum balls shaped like tennis balls. “I’ve been the face of many products,” she tells TIME. “But I’ve never actually, you know, had to spend my own money and put my energy into something that started from scratch.”

But it works both ways. Players’ personal empires—Venus Williams has her own fashion line, and Li Na is the face of Häagen-Dazs in China—pump up the sport’s popularity, too. “Our athletes  have done an incredible job crossing over into lifestyle and fashion,” says Andrew Walker, chief marketing officer at the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), the sport’s organizing body, which oversees 52 tournaments and promotes the sport globally. “That provides a great entry point for us to reach potential new fans.”

(VIDEO: 10 Questions with French Open Champion Li Na)

It’s working. During the 2011 season, viewership of WTA tournaments increased 73% globally, and overall broadcast time and tournament attendance both rose by 12%. In the United States, audiences on ESPN2 shot up by 70%—adding more than 4 million viewers. Figures like that have helped the WTA secure $160 million in sponsorship deals in the past two years. In turn that’s boosted the stakes for players. Prize money on the women’s tour has increased from $75 million in 2008 to $96 million this year.

The sums haven’t always ended with so many zeroes. In 1970, female tennis players competed for a total of $300,000 during the entire season. “We had fewer tournaments, which meant fewer opportunities to earn money,” says Billie Jean King, the legendary tennis player who founded the WTA in 1973, partly in protest of the disparity between men and women’s prize money. “We did have a few events where both the women and men competed, but in those tournaments the men’s prize money was usually 11 or 12 times higher than ours…We chased media and sponsors all day long and at night we found time to actually play our matches.”

(MORE: Glam Slam: Why Women’s Tennis Is Undergoing an Unprecedented Boom)