She’s banned from tennis, but Maria Sharapova is still building her brand
As she fights a two-year ban from tennis after failing a doping test, Maria Sharapova is having to sit out this year’s Wimbledon. It is a bitter blow for the Russian player, who won the tournament at the age of 17 by beating the defending champion Serena Williams and was one of the game’s stars until her career went so spectacularly off the rails.
Will she sit glumly in front of her television, throwing her racket across the room in frustration, as she watches her arch-rival Williams go for her 22nd grand slam singles title? No, Sharapova is far too busy packing her bags for Harvard Business School.
Yes, you read that correctly; the “Siren of Siberia” is swapping the courts for the classroom. And not just any old classroom. She is to attend the Ivy League institution where the elite of the business world gather to sharpen their skills. “Not sure how this happened but Hey Harvard! Can’t wait to start the program!” Sharapova posted on Twitter as she pointed delightedly to the Harvard Business School sign on its campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Impressive, huh? The 29-year-old obviously has brains as well as brawn because the master of business administration course at this vaunted B-school is known to be extremely difficult to get into. Last year there were 10,000 applicants for 940 places on the two-year course. Those who make the cut go on to become billionaire entrepreneurs and CEOs. The course’s lofty mission is “to educate leaders who make a difference in the world”.
MBA students take courses with titles such as Big Data and Critical Thinking, Entrepreneurship and Global Capitalism and the Microeconomics of Competitiveness. They learn operations management, how the larger political climate affects businesses and the difference between cost-based and value-based pricing.
Previous graduates include Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, former president George W Bush, and Walter Haas, who took his father’s small Levi jeans business and turned it into one of the world’s biggest clothing companies.
But not so fast. Sharapova is, like other celebrities before her, being a wee bit disingenuous when she lets everyone jump to the conclusion that she is doing an MBA at HBS. In fact, she will be taking a course on Harvard’s executive management programme, for which there are no formal educational requirements.
As the owner of her chocolate and candy company, Sugarpova, she is likely to have signed up for the owner/president management course, which costs a staggering $41,000 for a three-week session — though this does include tuition, course materials, accommodation and most meals. Chump change for Sharapova, of course, because she has won $36 million in prize money since turning professional in 2001 and earns millions more from endorsements.
The blurb for the course reads: “Building and running a successful company can be an all-consuming challenge that leaves little time for business owners to focus on their personal growth. Through a unique and intensive learning format, OPM enables you to assess your strengths and weaknesses, identify and exploit emerging opportunities and transform your company and your career.” On completing the course, participants are given alumnus status and gain access to HBS’s vast global network.
It all sounds perfect for a tennis player going through an enforced hiatus, who wants to sell the world more chocolate and gummy bears. Plus, she will be able to say that she attended Harvard.
It seems that Sharapova already has some connections to the Ivy League school and that maybe this wasn’t such an off-the-wall idea. She was the subject of a paper called Marketing a Champion by Anita Elberse, a professor of business administration at Harvard and an expert in the media and sports sectors.
Elberse is no stranger to celebrities in her lecture rooms. The hunky actor Channing Tatum and the rapper and actor LL Cool J attended one of her four-day courses about the entertainment industry, and pictures of them looking studious were duly posted on Twitter. It is, of course, good advertising for Harvard.
Sharapova is following in the footsteps of another celebrity entrepreneur, Tyra Banks, a former Victoria’s Secret angel and the host of the TV show of the television show America’s Next Top Model.
It’s perfect for a tennis player who wants to sell more gummy bears
Banks wrung every ounce of publicity from her short-lived stint at Harvard. When an incredulous Jimmy Kimmel asked her about the experience on his late-night talk show, she sighed dramatically and said, “Jimmy. It is so. Damn. Hard”, and talked about having to move into dorms for the duration of the “term”.
The model tweeted pictures of herself wearing a Harvard sweatshirt and posed with fellow students. “Enriching my mind with these amazing buddies! They are sooooo intelligent! Geniuses!” she proclaimed. On another chat show, when she was asked what kind of degree she would be receiving, she admitted: “I don’t know.” Banks was rapped over the knuckles by some American commentators for not being clear that she was in the pricey and non-degree-granting executive education programme.
Still, Sharapova is likely to pick up some helpful business tips from her time at Harvard that may help her to accelerate the growth of Sugarpova, which hasn’t made as big a splash on the business scene as she had hoped. It is also a way to divert attention from her not being at Wimbledon — or any other big tennis tournament in the near future. Sharapova tested positive for meldonium at the Australian Open earlier this year and has been banned by the International Tennis Federation until 2018.
She plans to fight the ruling because she said she did not intentionally violate the anti-doping rules. She had been taking the drug for ten years because of a magnesium deficiency and family history of diabetes, and had been unaware that it had been banned last year.
The “love and support” of her fans had, she said, got her through the “tough times” when she heard of her ban, and has resolved to get back to tennis as soon as possible.
In the meantime, there is Harvard and Sharapova is likely to take advantage of the full college experience. There will be lectures to listen to, Excel spreadsheets to pore over, but there will also be the thrill of living in dorms at Harvard and wandering through its beautiful courtyards. There may even be some campus drinking games such as the luge, where participants drink vodka poured down a channel carved out of a block of ice. And, of course, Harvard has a tennis team. Already, it has been rumoured, players are queueing to play opposite the five-time grand-slam winner.