Serena Williams Will Exit the Court, but Her Title as Brand Icon Is Assured


Don’t call it retirement. Instead, the end of her tennis playing days is an ‘evolution’

After 27 years as one of the world’s most recognized and iconic athletes, Serena Williams is winding down her professional career in tennis following her participation in the U.S. Open at the end of August.

But as Williams, who will turn 41 in September, revealed in a Vogue essay explaining her departure from professional sports, she rejects the word “retirement” as lacking any modern meaning. Rather, she views this next phase as a transition, or “evolution.”

While she didn’t go into much detail about future plans, she noted her interests lay elsewhere. Primarily, she wants to focus on raising her 4-year-old daughter with husband Alexis Ohanian, the tech entrepreneur and founder of Reddit. She also indicated a desire to be more active in her venture capital fund, Serena Ventures.

One thing the second highest-paid female athlete (behind fellow tennis star Naomi Osaka) didn’t bring up was her career as brand spokesperson and advertising star. She’s pitched for several dozen companies since she and her sister, 42-year-old Venus, burst onto the tennis scene and changed the sport—and the advertising around it—forever.

Nike, Lincoln, JP Morgan Chase, Beats by Dre and DirecTV are just some of the marquee advertisers Williams has lent her image to.

“Thank you, Serena, for being one of the most dynamic athletes of our generation and an inspiration for so many,” DirecTV CMO Vince Torres told Adweek. “Sports fans will remember you for your numerous Grand Slam titles, but all of us at DirecTV will cherish working hand-in-hand with you over the years to make an indelible, positive impact on the sports industry and beyond.”

Serena appeared in a number of DirecTV spots and she participated in the satellite media brand’s promotional events as well.

Serena didn’t just play for the majors. She also was partial to working with comparatively smaller brands like Tonal, Masterclass and Just Egg.

“Serena Williams is an inspiration on and off the court and it has been a thrill and honor to partner with her on our latest Just Egg campaign and welcome her as an investor,” a Just Egg representative told Adweek. “Her athletic, philanthropic and entrepreneurial endeavors are unparalleled, and we look forward to seeing what she accomplishes next. She’ll always be the GOAT to us.”

Williams’ marketing playbook

Her illustrious sporting career sets Williams up for pretty much anything she wants to do in the long run, noted Allen Adamson, co-founder and managing partner of marketing agency Metaforce.

“How long that run could be, how powerful it is, will likely have more to do with that than what else she does,” Adamson said. “Whether it’s movies, entertainment, how effective she is as a spokesperson, is determined by how selective she is. If she shows up everywhere, her brand could be diluted.”

The playbook of sports figures’ endorsement careers that well outlasted and outshined their years of professional play could fill volumes. The modern era of sports marketing personalities arguably began with former Jets star Joe Namath. He earned his media nickname “Broadway Joe” as a rookie with the New York Jets in 1965.

“Namath was never that great on the field, but he was a phenomenal spokesperson from everything from underwear to shaving cream,” Adamson said.

Williams’ experience is more akin to former NBA phenom Michael Jordan. His ability to sell everything from his own Nike brand of sneakers to cereal matched his unparalleled achievements on the basketball court.

But tennis has always been different. The Williams sisters both shattered the image of tennis as an elite and overwhelmingly white sport largely dominated by male personalities. Even the relatively few women stars like Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova can’t compare. The closest women’s tennis champion in terms of influence to Williams is Billie Jean King, but her cache has largely been relegated to pushing the envelope on social and political matters, not brand marketing.

In that sense, Williams can still make a certain kind of history on the marketing front.

“The previous generation of tennis stars—John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg, Chris Evert—didn’t really lean that heavily into celebrity endorsements,” Adamson said. “They did some. So tennis is ripe as a jumping off point for Serena. That’s especially true since it attracts luxury and upscale marketers who sell their brands based primarily on image. She’s already proven herself in so many ways. And she’ll be potentially more powerful off the court than on the court.”

This article first appeared in

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About Author

David Kaplan

A New York City-based journalist for over 20 years, David Kaplan is managing editor of A former editor and reporter at AdExchanger, paidContent, Adweek and MediaPost.

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