Maria Sharapova's Verbal Attack on Serena Williams Bad for Her Brand

Merlisa Lawrence Corbett@@merlisaFeatured ColumnistJune 23, 2013

Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams were all smiles at the 2013 French Open.
Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams were all smiles at the 2013 French Open.Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Maria Sharapova earns more money in endorsements than any woman in sports. So why is she risking damage to her brand by verbally attacking Serena Williams?

In case you missed it, Sharapova unleashed two digs at Williams within the last 30 days.

The last one was particularly personal, because it slammed Williams' love life.

Responding to what a writer "surmised" was Williams talking about her, Sharapova played moral police by bringing up Serena's rumored relationship with her coach Patrick Mouratoglou.

Sharapova told reporters: "If she wants to talk about something personal, maybe she should talk about her relationship and her boyfriend that was married and is getting a divorce and has kids."

Ouch. This was no knee-jerk tweet. Sharapova brought this up at a Wimbledon press conference.

How could a woman as media savvy as Sharapova fall for this mess? Why respond to a question about avoiding controversy by creating controversy?

Instead of press about the London launch of her candy line, Sharapova is making headlines which include phrases like "the claws" come out and "Maria Sharapova rips rival". Her comments even landed on TMZ

Meanwhile, at her press conference Sunday, Williams said she apologized to Sharapova in person Thursday night about her inadvertently being pulled into the drama. Sharapova never mentioned this in her press conference Saturday. 

Williams told Sports Illustrated that she takes full responsibility for her comments. She declined to take any swipes at Sharapova.

Sharapova's press conference, however, was compared to a soap opera. 

The comments that angered Sharapova came from a conversation the reporter overheard Serena having with her sister, Venus. Aside from the ethical questions about a reporter including one side of an overheard personal phone call in a story, you have to wonder why Sharapova would bite the bait tossed by controversy-seeking reporters.

The problem for Sharapova is that, like Tiger Woods, she gained her endorsement treasures based on a wholesome, drama-free image. 

Her endorsement deals include prestige brands like Evian and Porsche. Similar to Woods—pre-cheating scandal—and Roger Federer, Sharapova is selling an image of class and sophistication.

Serena's endorsement deals—Nike, Wilson and Gatorade—are based on her performance. These brands chose her because she represents winning, which is what they are selling.   

Former NBA player Charles Barkley has been arrested for drunk driving, admits to gambling and has repeatedly gotten into bar fights. Yet, he continues to get sponsorship deals. Barkley did not build his reputation on being above reproach. In fact, he famously noted, "I'm not a role model."

When you promote yourself as refined, you have to walk a fine line. You have to avoid appearing petty. 

Lately, Sharapova has not.

After losing to Williams in the French Open, Sharapova told, "I think if I were built like Serena, I hope I'd be able to hit a big serve like that too."

Sharapova ignored the fact that she is 6'2" and has a five-inch advantage on Williams. Or that Williams' serving motion is just better. It was a low-blow attack on another woman's body.

Besides, lack of power has never been an issue for Sharapova. 

Right or wrong, Williams is a polarizing figure. She will not gain or lose endorsements based on her demeanor.

Sharapova, on the other hand, enjoys big bucks based on a well-manicured image.

She can ill-afford to be seen as controversial. Engaging in verbal jousting only tears her stature down.

If you promote squeaky clean, you can't get dirty.

Both ladies would do well to remember the old saying: "When you throw mud, you lose ground."