A pretty good racket

New pros are riding the endorsement wave

Nobody said the game’s fair.

Not since Bob Uecker, who somehow parlayed a .200 lifetime batting average into a successful TV acting and celebrity-endorsement career, has a sports figure done so much with so little athletic accomplishment.

Anna Kournikova, having moved up to a 70th ranking among the Women’s Tennis Assn.’s singles rankings — and never even having won a singles title — stands to make $14 million this year in endorsements, hawking everything from Adidas sportswear to Berlei bras and Yonex tennis racquets.In fact, the 22-year-old Russian beauty is among sports’ highest-profile celebs, appearing at major events and headlining her own vidgame, “Anna Kournikova’s Smash Court Tennis.” She’s yet to nail down a big film or TV role, but she already has her own “E! True Hollywood Story.”As for the WTA’s No. 1-ranked player, Serena Williams, she’s coming off a Wimbledon victory, and her shoe deal with Puma is up. If bidding for a new one goes as expected, she should manage to surpass Kournikova — as well as her third-ranked older sister, Venus — in total endorsement worth.

Attempting to raise her profile for such endorsement work, Williams is taking acting lessons. She recently agreed to play a reformed gang member on the Showtime series “Street Time.” She’s also set to appear in the $1 million indie production “National Lampoon’s Bouncers” alongside Vivica A. Fox.

It’s a good living, by anyone’s measure, but you would think the No. 1 player in the world — a Wimbledon champion, at that — would have a lot more going on than one ranked 70th. “Most sports stars don’t appeal to the total market,” explains Steve Levitt whose Marketing Evaluations Inc. distills the average Joe perception of popular entertainment and sports figures into a simple-to-use rating called a Q Score. These ratings are used by ad agencies and casting departments to determine, among other things, who gets endorsement and acting gigs.

“When you isolate fans of a particular sport like tennis, people like Pete Sampras and the Williams sisters are going to rate much higher than they would in a general study,” Levitt says.

More bluntly, Ryan Schinman, president of sports marketing firm Platinum Rye Entertainment, recently told ESPN, “Outside of apparel, shoes and racquets, I’m not convinced the Williams sisters help companies sell product.”

History lessons

Back in the 1990s, when Michael Jordan and Nike were redefining just how much air could be put into a shoe deal, it was assumed that Jordan’s championship ways had at least something to do with it.

But championship rings have little to do with the $90 million Nike deal signed by rookie LeBron James. That’s twice what was given to Kobe Bryant — a three-time NBA champion and five-time all star married with child, fluent in Italian, but hindered by what sports marketing industry analysts describe as questionable street cred among the young hip-hop nation denizens who are the primary purchasers of basketball shoes. (Of course, all of this could soon change for Bryant, pending his criminal investigation in Colorado.)

Going back three decades, Johnny Unitas, a three-time MVP, winner of three NFL titles and considered by some to be the greatest quarterback, was a less of a household name than “Broadway” Joe Namath, who parlayed a single Super Bowl win into over a decade of endorsement deals, as well as various TV announcing gigs and public appearances.

“For an athlete to really have an impact, he or she must transcend (the) sport,” says Andy Pierce, senior international VP for IMG, the world’s preeminent sports marketing firm. “Muhammad Ali is a great example. And Tiger Woods today.”

“It’s gotta be somebody who can actually communicate,” says Lon Rosen, a former Endeavor agent who has handled contracts for Lakers legends Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Jerry West.One must also be at least good enough to be out on the court or field, and on TV, in order for the transcendental qualities of looks and charisma to get noticed.

“We handle athletes who have the ability to cross over, mostly athletes who are dominant in their sport,” says Lewis Kay, VP of entertainment for Bragman Nyman Cafarelli, a PR and marketing firm that, among other duties, handles a small roster of athletes including track’s Marion Jones, soccer’s Landon Donovan, basketball’s Ray Allen and football’s Warren Sapp.

Going Hollywood

Playing time is good for one’s endorsement acumen. So are appearances on TV and in film, says Peter Caparis, exec VP of sales and marketing for Impact Sports, a marketing and PR firm owned by sports agent Scott Boras. Impact reps Texas Rangers shortstop Alex Rodriguez, whose $250 million contract makes him the highest-paid player in any sport, but whose Arlington headquarters is nowhere near Hollywood.

“We placed Alex on the ‘Tonight Show,’ ” Caparis explains. “We wanted more people to see who Alex Rodriguez was. It helped me raise his profile and make his Q Score go up.”

Sometimes, raising one’s profile requires a bit more sacrifice than merely flying to Burbank to be on TV. In 1996, coming off a career year with the Boston Celtics in which he averaged 15.4 points per game, forward Rick Fox eschewed a $5 million-a-season offer from the Cleveland Cavaliers in favor of a $1 million-a-year deal with the Los Angeles Lakers.

Fox, who is married to actress Vanessa L. Williams, says he was motivated by the opportunity to win a championship alongside Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal — and by the chance to make L.A. contacts for his acting career.

“It was less of a sacrifice when I approached it from the perspective of life after basketball,” says Fox, who, like Serena Williams, is repped by William Morris’ Jill Smoller. “It was imperative for me to be among artists in the entertainment industry. Although it was a sacrifice in funding, I gained in atmosphere and knowledge and relationships.”

Appearances in “Holes” — the first theatrical release by Walden Media, owned by billionaire sports and entertainment mogul Philip Anschutz — as well as Spike Lee’s “He Got Game” (alongside Ray Allen) and HBO’s prison series “Oz,” are more than a means to an endorsement end for Fox. (Although Fox did begin hawking cars for Southern California Ford dealers last year.)

New York Yankees slugger Bernie Williams — signed to a record deal by Paul McCartney’s MPL Communications after the Beatles legend heard him play jazz guitar during a night at the ballpark — is driven to pursue a side career by his passion for music. His CD, “The Journey Within,” features accompaniment by David Benoit, Bela Fleck and Ruben Blades, and hit stores July 15.

Regardless of what motivates an athlete to increase their celebrity profile, the leagues they play for certainly see a benefit of increased brand exposure.

Paul Brooks, VP of broadcasting for NASCAR, feels it’s vital to expand the fan base of his sport by having its stars branch out into other aspects of the entertainment field. To do so, NASCAR set up a full-time L.A. office.

Jeff Gordon, one of the sport’s top drivers, hosted “Saturday Night Live” earlier this year and has appeared in small parts on “The Drew Carey Show,” “Arliss” and “Spin City.”

Meanwhile, Dale Earnhardt Jr. made an appearance on the Fox series “Fastlane” and in a Sheryl Crow musicvideo. NASCAR also is developing a racing-themed movie script with Britney Spears, among other entertainment endeavors.

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