Andre Agassi burst onto the professional tennis scene at age 16 in 1986, sporting long spiky hair and Nike denim shorts. He quickly became known for his passion and ferocity, fearlessly charging the net and smacking down serves speeding toward him at 130 mph.
Eighteen years later Agassi is bald and 34, and his charges to the net aren't quite as ferocious as they used to be. The world's top players are a decade younger than he is. Since miraculously rising to the number one ranking in the world a year ago, he hasn't won a single tournament; after losing in the opening round of three consecutive events, he has dropped to number nine.
Yet off the court, as a celebrity pitchman, Andre Agassi — ranked seventh on FORBES' list of the 50 highest-paid athletes — has never been hotter. In two decades he has reaped $200 million in endorsement deals. This year sponsors will pay him $28 million, the richest year of his career; only Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan will outearn him.
And though he is nearing the end of his career, in the past two years he has landed American Express, Aramis, Genworth and KiaMotors. In November his longtime racquet sponsor, Head, signed him to a lifetime deal. In March he signed a ten-year pact with 24-Hour Fitness, which will open five Andre Agassi fitness centers by year-end; the pay starts at $1.5 million a year.
Agassi is a notable exception to the overall decline of sports-star endorsement deals. A decade ago sneakermakers handed out deals like lollipops, but today the bulk of the money goes to only a few ubiquitous superstars: Woods, Jordan, LeBron James. Ten years ago the best-paid athletes earned half of their income from endorsements; since then the 50 top earners have tripled their pay — with combined earnings of $1.1 billion — but only 40 percent comes from marketing deals.
Yet the largesse of Agassi's sponsors has little to do with his tenacity at the net. He had a lucrative deal with a nontennis sponsor (Canon) before winning his first Grand Slam event (Wimbledon in 1992). Today's top American tennis star, Andy Roddick, earns only $5 million a year off the court. Pete Sampras won 14 Grand Slam titles to Agassi's 8 and beat Agassi four of the five times they played a Grand Slam final. Yet Sampras' endorsement income peaked at $8 million, less than a third of what Agassi will reap this year.
"Agassi has tremendous personality and charisma — in a sport that wasn't known for those things," says David Carter, founder of Sports Business Group, a marketing firm in Redondo Beach, Calif. "He can speak to a couple of generations of consumers, which gives him a great platform for deals as his career winds down."
Next year Agassi will likely turn in the highest-earning year of his career, boosted by an estimated $40 million he is set to receive in Nike stock, a final balloon payment on a ten-year, $120 million deal. Nike was Agassi's first corporate sponsor, handing him $25,000 in his first year as a pro. Riccardo Colombini, Nike's tennis-marketing chief, says the flashy star helped make the Nike "Swoosh" logo an icon. "He embodies the Nike philosophy of being both irreverent and innovative. He changed the game of tennis and certainly its dress code." But will Nike sign him again when the deal ends next year? The company declines to comment.