When she was a child, Russian-born tennis star Maria Sharapova always received a candy bar or a lollipop after a good practice. Now the 25-year-old champion hopes to turn her sweet tooth into a profitable business. She’s spent $500,000 to set up Sugarpova, a candy brand featuring brightly colored gummies with playfully named flavors such as Smitten Sour, Quirky, and Sporty. She hopes to more than double her money in the first year and may expand into other products later.
The gummy candy was first marketed in the U.S. in August, shipping 250,000 bags in the first three months, according to Max Eisenbud, Sharapova’s agent at IMG Tennis. It was just launched in Melbourne to coincide with her appearance in this month’s Australian Open. Eisenbud forecasts sales of 1 million bags in the first year alone as distribution expands to the U.K., Japan, Canada, Russia, India, and China. Sharapova, who makes a profit of as much as $1.10 per bag, says she’s surprised by the strong start. “We don’t really have a big budget at all for marketing and advertisement,” says the four-time Grand Slam tournament winner, who owns 100 percent of the company. “That hasn’t been our main goal, because I am the face of the project, and I do travel around the world, and people ask me about it.”
Eisenbud, who is also Sugarpova’s chief executive officer, says he spends about 60 percent of his work time on the candy. “Maria’s star power,” he says, is behind the sales momentum. “It’s also the power of social media, the power of her almost 9 million fans on Facebook (FB).”
Sharapova shot to global fame and became the world’s best-paid female athlete after she won Wimbledon in 2004 at age 17. Titles at the U.S. Open and the Australian Open followed in 2006 and 2008, before an injury sidelined her for nine months. Last year she became only the 10th woman to capture all four major tennis championships when she won the French Open. Her annual earnings from prize money and endorsements for Nike (NKE), Samsung Electronics, Tiffany (TIF), and other companies are estimated at close to $28 million, according to Forbes and Eisenbud.
“She’s attractive, and she’s well-spoken,” says Marcia Mogelonsky, director of insight at market researcher Mintel Food & Drink. “Those two things right away help her. Sugarpova is a cute name. Even those who aren’t focused on tennis might find the name intriguing, the packaging intriguing, and the flavors. If the candy is good, and if it catches on, and if she can keep this going more than a year, it should be good.”
Although Sharapova has promoted the wares of her sponsors for years and co-designed products for Nike and watchmaker Tag Heuer (MC:FP), the line of gummies is her first solo foray into business. “I really wanted to do something on my own,” she says.
After researching the candy market, Eisenbud and Sharapova concluded “there is no real brand recognition with gummies,” says Eisenbud. So the pair focused on producing an upscale product. Made at a factory in Spain, Sugarpova is sold in more elaborate packaging than rivals. The candies are available on Sugarpova’s website and at retailers including Macy’s (M) and Henri Bendel in the U.S., Selfridges in London, and Colette in Paris. A bag of Sugarpova sells for as much as $5.99, about six times the price of a bag of chewy sweets made by Haribo, the worldwide gummy market leader. “She’s got an interesting niche positioning for herself, because she has no competitors right now,” says Mintel’s Mogelonsky, who estimates the market for gummy candy in the U.S., Asia, and Western Europe was $28 billion last year. “This is a part of the confectionery industry that doesn’t have a premium segment.”
Jeff Rubin, creator of the FAO Schweetz candy departments inside FAO Schwarz toy stores and co-founder of U.S. sweets chain Dylan’s Candy Bar, is a Sugarpova consultant—he came up with the name—and will receive an undisclosed percentage of sales when profits hit certain thresholds. He says the tennis player is “very, very involved” in the brand. “Less than 24 hours after winning the French Open, she was doing final taste tests at the factory in Europe.”
After its founder retires from tennis, Sugarpova may expand to other products. Explains Sharapova: “First and foremost, we’re still getting our feet on the ground in terms of the candy. But eventually I would definitely see the Sugarpova brand in fashion, in cosmetics, in different passions of mine.”