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Seles leaps from ‘Just Do It’ to ‘Who?’

Seles leaps from ‘Just Do It’ to ‘Who?’

By Daniel Kaplan, Staff Writer

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A Japanese company best known for its badminton and tennis rackets has lured tennis icon Monica Seles away from Nike to endorse shoes and clothes.

While major sneaker brands like Nike have slashed their endorsement rosters in recent years, that trend is creating opportunities for companies that historically would not have been able to sign star athletes. Now Yonex, heretofore unknown in sneakers and apparel, plans to make the highly ranked Seles the centerpiece of an international marketing campaign for its new tennis lines.

Seles signed a letter of intent with Yonex that will guarantee her a mid-seven-figure sum over the next several years and, perhaps as important, award her substantial bonuses for winning.

And Seles can sell ad space on both of her sleeves, a practice Nike won't allow.

"That is a huge bonus," said Seles, who wore Yonex's clothes and shoes for the first time at a tournament in San Diego last week. "I felt [Nike's] was an unfair offer in the marketplace, and I am very fortunate that Yonex felt the other way about it."

As the market for corporate endorsements tightens, deals such as Seles' with the unlikely Yonex may become more common. In fact, before Yonex entered the picture, Seles' agent at IMG, Tony Godsick, talked with Ellesse, an Italian fashion company.

"Companies like Yonex that are trying to get into a market will now be able to get athletes," said Jeff Chown, a partner of the athletes-services unit of The Marketing Arm, a sports marketing firm owned by Omnicom, the largest advertising conglomerate in the world. "You may end up seeing more of that."

Yonex intends to place Seles at the center of its international campaign to sell its tennis clothing and shoe lines, one of which will be named after the 26-year-old star. While widely available in Japan for the last few decades, Yonex's tennis apparel was introduced in the United States last February at the Super Show, the sports industry trade exhibition, said Jun Hirasawa, promotional director of the Japanese company's racket sports unit.

The company is trying to convince Seles to appear at a tennis industry show later this month at the U.S. Open, Hirasawa said. Seles, a friend of the company's owner, has played with Yonex rackets for 10 years, so she should become a walking billboard for the firm.

"We want to link her name and the Yonex name," Hirasawa said. "In the future, we want to be a total tennis manufacturer, not just tennis rackets. We want to be like Wilson or Prince, a tennis brand."

Seles had earned millions of dollars from Nike, including a roughly $5 million payment for the last year of her contract because the deal paid her more at the end than at the beginning.

Seles even had her own shoe line at Nike, the Purple Haze (named after the Jimi Hendrix song), so her departure from the company surprised many people in the tennis world.

"Obviously, we regret it," said Chris Vermeeren, Nike's global director of tennis sports marketing. "Monica has been great for the company, but we couldn't come up with the same agreement" as Yonex.

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