Is she a loser or an underdog? It depends on where you live

By Published on .

Anna Kournikova.

There. I was lazy. This is tangentially about Anna Kournikova, the world's most highly sponsored woman athlete. It's more about whether losers can be winners-brands as well as people. It's also an attempt to link Kournikova to this week's American Association of Advertising Agencies' management conference and a panel there on "the difference between advertising in the U.K. and the USA."

Can losers win? This month, according to the not entirely reliable U.K. tabloid press, Kournikova's chief sponsor, Adidas, belatedly decided the Russian superstar must start winning for it to continue endorsing her as the golden girl in its golden tennis dresses. It's a huge story in Europe.

Anna has never won a pro tournament. In 2000, her best year, she made No. 8 on the Association of Tennis Professionals list with zero tournament victories. Her current ranking is 69. She is more famous for dating Enrique Iglesias than for her blistering forehand.

Does this matter? Off-court, Anna earns an estimated $10 million a year from Adidas, Berlei and others. That's staggering for someone who's best on-court performance was the Wimbledon semifinals in 1997. Those same U.K. tabloids make plans for her early tournament exits. The sports pages cover the winning Williams sisters while Anna is moved "up front" in prearranged fashion shoots.

So why is Adidas crying "fault"? It wins more editorial space with failing Anna than Reebok, Nike and the like do with the winning Lindsay, or Jennifer, Serena or Venus.

This works least well in the U.S. Kournikova is bigger outside her adopted home, and is huge in the U.K. Supporting the underdog is a cultural thing-only not an American cultural thing. Can you imagine Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan or Pete Sampras being such huge earners off the field if they were not dominant on it? Even attention-grabbing brats like John McEnroe and Dennis Rodman had to be winners first.

American sports fans don't mist up over noble failure. Outside Boston, the underachieving Red Sox are ridiculed. Young kids want to be winning Yankees, not Red Sox.

Young Andy Roddick will be huge. Contrast Roddick with Tim Henman, the Brit tennis pro who occasionally flatters to deceive. He, too, has never won a major. Every year at Wimbledon he teases the nation with his glorious passage to semifinal defeat. Also sponsored by Adidas, his failure gets more press in the U.K. than any other player's success. This, remember, is the country that lionized Eddie ("the eagle") Edwards, the world's worst ski-jumper.

But to many, "loser" Kournikova is the symbol of Adidas sport. She even features in the first work from TBWA and 180 Amsterdam. The trouble is another babe tennis player will surely come along soon-and may even start winning!

Moral of the story? To be a loser and still win you have to be a Brit or a babe. Or, perhaps, it's that not all publicity is good publicity. But it's clear the gulf between advertising and marketing in the U.K. and the U.S. is as wide as the gap between our cultures, and that's far wider than a trifling ocean.

Stefano Hatfield is editorial director of Ad Age Global and Creativity.

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