Maria Sharapova tested positive for meldonium in January at the Australian Open. In a hastily called press conference in March, she acknowledged that she’d taken the drug, saying she simply didn’t know that it was on the list of newly banned substances for 2016. On Wednesday, an Independent Tribunal appointed by the Tennis Anti-Doping Programme found that Sharapova committed an Anti-Doping Rule Violation, and banned her from the sport for two years, effective on January 26, 2016.
There’s a lot to unpack from the 33-page decision, such as Sharapova’s agent saying he didn’t realize that meldonium was banned because he didn’t take his annual Caribbean vacation after splitting from his wife:
Ultimately, however, the bottom line is that the ITP decided that Sharapova didn’t intentionally break the rules. If she had, it’s likely her sentence would’ve been between two to four years, rather than one to two.
Sharapova immediately released a statement after the decision came down saying that she would appeal, calling the sentence “unfairly harsh.”
It will be interesting to see how the ban affects Sharapova’s bottom line, and whether her fans will ultimately care that she’s not going to be on the WTA tour for two years if her appeal fails.
Tennis has not been Sharapova’s main source of income, nor has it been the only way she’s connected with her fans. Since turning pro in 2001, Sharapova has earned an average of $2.3 million a year in prize money, totaling $36,766,149. However, Forbes puts her net worth at $129 million, and says that she’s earned $300 million over the course of her career from prize money and endorsements — emphasis on the latter. In 2016, for example, she earned just $1.9 million in prize money, but raked in $20 million in endorsements.
Sharapova was the highest paid female athlete in the world for the past 11 years. But Wednesday’s decision hasn’t been the only bit of news she’s been a part of this week: On Monday, Forbes announced that Serena Williams has dethroned Sharapova and become the wealthiest woman in sports, earning $8.9 million in prize money and $20 million in endorsements.
So if Sharapova wasn’t earning most of her money by playing tennis in the first place, will her ban affect her bottom line? Of course. Tag Heuer didn’t renew Sharapova’s deal that expired in December after her initial suspension was announced. Both Nike and Porsche have suspended their promotions with Sharapova for the time being, but they haven’t terminated their contracts, and Avon, Evian, and Head have all stayed by her side.
But Sharapova isn’t at the mercy of endorsements alone — she has her candy business, Sugarpova, and for years now has been building up a fan base around her media appearances and forays into the fashion world. She’s friends with celebrities like Chelsea Handler (the two vacationed together in Mexico this spring) and will make an appearance on Handler’s new Netflix show at some point this season.
In her announcement of her plans to appeal, Sharapova thanked her fan base for their unwavering support — if she’s to be believed, her suspension hasn’t seemed to deter those already firmly in her camp.
It’s also worth noting that Sharapova, at 29, is no longer one of the young up-and-coming whippersnappers. If the ban holds, she’ll be 30 by the time she’s allowed to play again, and after two years off the tour, that’s on the older side to stage a comeback. Building a fan base outside of the sport might’ve been a more savvy business move than she ever could have imagined, given that she’ll need to rely on those tangential sources of income and relevance if her appeal fails.
In the meantime? She’s going to need to sling a lot of candy to stay near the top of Forbes’ list.
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