Serena Williams heads to New York this month for the U.S. Open on a historic roll. She has won the past four Grand Slam events to complete the “Serena Slam” for the second time in her career. She has lost only once on the court in 41 matches this year (she’s withdrawn in the middle of three events for injuries). Her $9.1 million in prize money during the first seven months of the year is more than tennis legend Chris Evert and all but 35 female tennis players made over their entire careers.
But for all of her brilliance on the court, Williams still looks up at rival Maria Sharapova when measuring their bank accounts. Williams earned $24.6 million from prize money and endorsements between June 2014 and June 2015, while Sharapova banked $29.7 million. Sharapova is the world’s highest-paid female athlete for the 11th straight year.
Sharapova bounced back from injuries in 2013 to win her second French Open title last year and her fifth Grand Slam overall. Her $6.7 million in prize money is almost triple what it was in the previous 12 months. The Roland Garros win also kicked in valuable bonuses from sponsors Nike NKE -1.22% and Head. Other major Sharapova partners include Avon Products AVP -3.76% (new in 2014), Evian, Porsche and Tag Heuer
Sharapova launched her own candy line, Sugarpova, in 2012. Sales doubled in the past year to more than three million bags of candy and the brand is now available in more than 30 countries. The Russian-born tennis star wants to turn Sugarpova into a lifestyle brand with clothing and accessories. She launched the Official Maria Sharapova App in March to provide fans a behind-the-scenes look at her life on and off the court. She is already the top female athlete and tennis player on Facebook with 15 million fans.
Williams continues to dominate her sport at an age when most players have hung up their rackets. At 33 years old, she is the oldest player to hold the No. 1 ranking with Evert the previous record holder at 30 in 1985. In July, Williams had twice as many rankings points as the current No. 2 player, Sharapova. This was a first in WTA history. Williams’ career prize money of $72.7 million since she turned pro twenty years ago is twice as much as Sharapova (Serena’s sister Venus ranks third overall with $31 million).
Williams is arguably the greatest female athlete of all-time, but sponsors have often eschewed the 21-time Grand Slam singles champ. Williams’ skin color, muscular body type and one memorable outburst at the U.S. Open in 2009 have all been blamed by pundits for the endorsement gap between Williams and Sharapova. The reality is that there is no one magic answer for the disparity.
Williams’ endorsement scorecard has picked up as she shoots for the calendar Grand Slam in Flushing, Queens. Williams added deals with Audemars Piguet and Chase over the past year. Chase is a big sponsor of the Open and its’ commercials featuring Williams have been in heavy rotation on TV during the summer. She also expanded her longtime Gatorade relationship to include the sport drink’s parent PepsiCo PEP -0.24%, which introduced a new Pepsi Challengethis summer. A win at the U.S. Open should further close the gap between Williams and Sharapova.
Danish tennis pro Caroline Wozniacki ranks third with earnings of $14.6 million, including $11 million off the court. She picked up new deals with Godiva chocolates and Lavazza coffee this year. She is the first athlete sponsor ever for Godiva, which approached her after Wozniacki said in a Wall Street Journal article: “I will do a chocolate deal for product only. No need for money.” Wozniacki will get product in the new deal, as well as a mid-six figure check annually in the multi-year pact. Wozniacki, who is tight with Williams, ran the NYC marathon in November and raised more than $80,000 for charity in the process.
The first non-tennis player to make the cut is Nascar’s Danica Patrick, who ranks No. 4 with earnings of $13.9 million. Patrick’s main sponsor, GoDaddy, announced in April that it was leaving Nascar after the 2015 season. Despite her struggles on the track, Patrick is still a hot commodity in the sport and is expected to return to Stewart-Haas Racing with new sponsors behind her car in 2016. She has been featured in more Super Bowl commercials than other celebrity thanks to GoDaddy.
The world’s 10 highest-paid female athletes are a global group with seven different nationalities represented. They earned $124 million collectively from salary, winnings, appearances, licensing and endorsements between June 1, 2014 and June 1, 2015. The total was down 12% as some new blood made the cut this year with the retirement of list-staples Li Na and Kim Yuna, who ranked second and fourth last year respectively. The Chinese tennis star and South Korean Olympic figure skating champion both retired from competition in 2014.
Tennis players dominate the list with seven entries. The revenue disparity between athletes in basketball, soccer and golf is vast with the top 10 male athletes earning $950 million combined over the past 12 months. But tennis is the one sport that generates significant revenue on both the men’s and women’s side. The result is near equal prize money in tennis and widespread TV coverage, which attracts sponsors who want athletes getting exposure. Tennis’ demographics are also strong with tennis fans wielding high disposable incomes to spend on equipment, apparel, watches and cars.
One newcomer in the top 10 is UFC star Ronda Rousey, who ranks No. 8 with estimated earnings of $6.5 million. The mixed martial arts champion had a breakout year with roles in three big budget movies over the past 12 months, a best-selling autobiography and an appearance on the cover of Sports Illustrated (she also showed up in SI’s swimsuit issue). Her endorsement portfolio includes Reebok, Metro PCS, Monster headphones, Buffalo David Bitton and Carl’s Jr.