Will Sugarpova be an ace for Maria?

September 07, 2012

World tennis star Maria Sharapova applies what she learned as a celebrity endorser to her new line of gummy candies.

Few food brands endorsed by popular athletes have made any health pretensions.

When high-profile athletes promote unhealthy foods, parents are half as likely to read the nutrition information panel on packages, and they are twice as likely to buy it, a study of moms and dads of 1,500 school-age children in the Public Health Nutrition journal noted last year, according to Australia’s Herald Sun.

Here are some athlete-endorsed foods in the United States through the decades, which helped sweet-toothed fans feel closer to sports stars when snacking, thanks to the Candy Wrapper Museum:  The Ruth’s Home Run candy bar named for The Babe.  The Muhammad Ali Crisp Crunch Bar label, which claimed “all natural ingredients.” The carob-coated Pete Rose Supercharg’r Energy Bar labeled as “Nature’s answer to candy.” The Reggie! bar named for Reggie Jackson.

Even when categories beyond treats are involved, the marketing is mostly about fantasy. Breakfast fans were able to start their mornings with Olympic champions Mary Lou Retton and Bruce Jenner on cereal boxes (which Gabby Douglas has done this summer with a competing brand). Other stars have endorsed fast-food chains, soft drinks, soup, salsa, mustard, tea and lemonade, weight loss programs, and macaroni and cheese.

Now Russian tennis star Maria Sharapova seeks an ace with Sugarpova, her 12-item line of gummy candies with a feminine touch—some are shaped liked handbags and shoes. What’s different from the typical athlete association with a food product? First, she has ownership interest in the business. Her agent and Sugarpova CEO Max Eisenbud told Bloomberg she invested “a few hundred thousand dollars.” A business partner is Jeff Rubin, the founder of IT’SUGAR and creator of FAO Schweetz candy departments inside the famed FAO Schwarz toy stores.

Second, the brand is not being sold at mass merchants—rather on its website, at IT’SUGAR stores in malls, and at Madame Tussauds wax museums, following its debut at high-end retailer Henri Bendel on Fifth Avenue in New York City.  Third, she’s not an American. Fourth, Sugarpova donates a percentage of sales to a foundation benefiting students affected by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

Yet it’s similar to most athlete food endorsements in one big way.  Despite Sharapova being a well-conditioned athlete (and the world’s highest-paid female athlete), there is no health pretense to Sugarpova. If her U.S. path hits the sweet spot, it will be one more commercial triumph for sports celebrity.