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Athletic Firms Going to the Net in Quest for Next Tennis Celebrity

June 26, 1990|BRUCE HOROVITZ

Ian Hamilton could hardly believe what he was seeing. While he watched from courtside, an unknown, unranked 15-year-old amateur tennis player was whipping one of the nation's top 18-year-olds.

After the match, which took place nearly five years ago at a popular tennis academy in Florida, Hamilton approached young Andre Agassi and introduced himself as Nike's director of sports marketing for tennis.

"When you decide to turn pro," Hamilton remembers telling Agassi, "you call me."

A few months later, Agassi telephoned. "When we made our first offer, no one else had even submitted one," said Hamilton. Agassi's initial endorsement contract reportedly was for less than $10,000 per year. Sometime in the next few weeks, Nike is expected to announce a multi-year, multimillion-dollar endorsement deal with the long-haired, sometimes brash tennis star. Agassi also has a $7-million endorsement contract with Donnay, a tennis racquet maker in Belgium, and a multimillion-dollar promotional contract with Ebel, a Swiss watchmaker.

The key for Nike was signing Agassi while he was so young. "If you can nail down a future Wimbledon champion when they're 15 years old, you have a reasonably good chance of keeping them for their career," said John Horan, publisher of the newsletter Sporting Goods Intelligence. "Once they have been identified as a Nike or Adidas athlete, their value to a competing company tumbles."

But as the Wimbledon tennis tournament attracts worldwide attention this week, don't look for Agassi. In a much-publicized move, he said he will skip the tournament to prepare for the upcoming U.S. Open later this summer. But the cameras at Wimbledon will likely focus on several other male and female players--some even younger than Agassi--who have also signed huge endorsement contracts with major tennis equipment and apparel companies.

There's 14-year-old Jennifer Capriati, who, with the guidance of tennis great Chris Evert, became a millionaire before even turning pro. She signed a reported $3-million contract with the Italian sportswear maker Diadora, and $1-million contract with Prince tennis rackets. There's Monica Seles, 16, who has a $4-million endorsement contract with Fila to promote its footwear and tennis apparel. And there's 18-year-old Michael Chang of Placentia, who has a reported $300,000-per-year endorsement contract with Reebok, and an estimated $100,000 contract to promote Cathay Pacific Airlines.

As tennis stars are increasingly turning professional at tender ages, eager corporate sponsors compete even harder to find them first. "In each sport, we have a promotion person whose job it is to learn who the up-and-coming players are," said Elizabeth Dolan, a Nike spokeswoman. "One way to do that is to hang around the right places." These paid observers closely follow the young talents at tennis clubs and at junior tournaments. And they sometimes supply the budding stars with free equipment.

But once these young players accept money for endorsements, they lose their amateur status and join the grueling pro tennis circuit. There is growing skepticism that this is such a good thing. Some critics point fingers at parents, agents or corporate sponsors who can sometimes coax wide-eyed teen-agers into making purely financial decisions.

"A lot of them get potential--and I stress potential--offers from big companies," said Cheryl Jones, women's tennis coach at USC. "I think that's the primary factor that influences these kids to become pro."

The rules now permit amateur tennis players to become professionals as early as age 14. But Jones doesn't think that youngsters should be allowed to join the professional ranks until they're at least 18. "It's too much stress to put yourself through at an early age," she said. "Due to the high level of competition, there's a great chance some of these kids will be injured."

Witness Tracy Austin and Andrea Jaeger, who both became professionals as teen-agers but whose nagging injuries may have helped to bring an early end to their tennis careers.

Not surprisingly, the agents--and corporations--behind tennis stars insist that they do not put pressure on the young athletes. Reebok, for example, insists that it didn't lure Michael Chang into its fold when he turned professional at age 16. "His parents consulted with us and with various sports management groups," said Mark Holtzman, director of brand promotions at Reebok. "It was Michael and his parents who felt he was ready for the prime time."

One of Agassi's representatives said Agassi's initial contract with Nike didn't cause any pressure--but actually relieved it. "It was a security blanket," said Bill Shelton, an account executive at the sports marketing division of International Management Group, the firm that represents Agassi. "All of a sudden, he didn't have to worry about getting into the second or third round of tournaments just to pay his bills."

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