At 5:47 p.m. ET on Tuesday, Maria Sharapova took the court at Arthur Ashe Stadium to play her first round match against Jarmila Groth. She was carrying two bags. One, a Nike Cole Haan designer bag. The other? A bag with the words “Prince” on it.
There was nothing strange about either bag. But there was something different about what the 23-year-old took out of the Prince bag. You see, the company’s most marketable tennis player –- who has what is termed as a “lifetime deal” -- wasn’t playing with a Prince racket that you can actually buy on the shelves.
Whether she was playing with a disguised competitor’s racket or something Prince has made for her remains a mystery, but what is clear is that Sharapova hasn’t played with a racket whose strings are stenciled with the company’s famous “P” since March.
While a consumer might not notice the difference, insiders in the business are abuzz about the change because of the stakes involved. Sharapova’s deal, signed in 2006, was reported as a 10-year, $25 million deal.
Stringers and tennis geeks guess the frame of Sharapova’s racket is made by Head. One online message board said it was definitely Head’s YouTek Radical, while one stringer told CNBC that his best guess is that it’s a Head Prestige due to the eight string holes in the throat of the racket and the very thin frame profile. The stringer, who asked for anonymity, said that it appears like Sharapova’s team has had some custom strips placed over the clamshell stringing strip that closes over the strings as the racket is strung to further disguise that she is using a competitor’s racket.
Tennis players have long had a love-hate relationship with the rackets they use, and marketing deals make the game even more complex. Some players are marketing one racket while simultaneously playing with another; other players aren’t even playing with the brand that they say they are.
Tomas Berdych played in the Wimbledon finals against Rafael Nadal this year. He came out onto the court with a Dunlop bag, but pulled out Head rackets. Berdych wasn’t even coy about it. Close up pictures could show the words “HEAD” on the racket frame. He’s still playing with Head rackets, even though he’s listed on the Dunlop Web site as an endorser.
Then there’s the story of Fernando Verdasco, also paid by Dunlop, but was playing with an old Technifibre stick. Perhaps because of some pressure, Verdasco went back to the Dunlop racket as indicated on his strings, but after a series of bad losses including a first-round Wimbledon exit to Fabio Fognini, Verdasco was back at the US Open Tuesday with an unstenciled racket again. This time, he beat Fognini in five sets.
Even though it appears like Sharapova has been using the very same racket since the switch, Prince officials suggest that she’s trying a variety of rackets in order to help the company with future initiatives.
“Sharapova has agreed to participate in a very innovative, pioneering product development program with Prince,” the company said in a statement provided to CNBC. “She will be using some experimental frames over the next few months in practice and in competition. We are well aware that some of the frames she may be using may include racquets that Prince does not carry in its current line. That is part of our program. During this phase of experimentation, she may or may not stencil, but she is a Prince contracted player. We are using one of our marquee athletes to play test, under match conditions, products to help future offerings.”
While Prince officials admit Sharapova might not be playing with a racket available in retail stores, they continue to use her to market the Prince EXO3 Black, which is the fourth best selling racket at US pro specialty shops this quarter.
So here’s the essential question. How long with this testing go on and is it possible that, at some point, Prince and Sharapova have to go their separate ways? Prince officials told the media that James Blake, who had switched from Dunlop to Prince in Dec. 2005, was working with them to develop new equipment when he was spotted using his old Dunlop. But after 18 months, Blake and Prince parted ways after the American tennis star had a hard time getting use to the company’s O3 technology. Blake returned to Dunlop.
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