A pregnant Serena Williams makes the tennis superstar even more attractive to corporate sponsors, allowing her to extend her reach into maternity wear and motherhood products, sponsorship industry executives said.
Williams on Wednesday confirmed her pregnancy through spokeswoman Kelly Bush Novak after the tennis player posted a picture of herself in a yellow bathing suit on Snapchat social media with the caption "20 weeks."
"You take an iconic name who's now a brand and you add pregnancy to it, you get a happy story," said Gary Fechter, an attorney at McCarter & English who has represented companies in sponsorship deals. "This just makes her even more valuable."
With almost $29 million in salary and sponsorship earnings, Williams ranked as the top paid female athlete in the world last year on a list compiled by Forbes magazine.
Williams could add to her earnings by appealing to new audiences, the experts said. Existing sponsors could tell new stories with an expecting superstar athlete, and new corporate sponsors might sign up with the mom-to-be as well.
"This just adds another dimension to Serena the person," said Jim Andrews, senior vice president with IEG, a WPP Plc unit that tracks sponsorship spending.
Lawyer Fechter said there has not been an athlete of Williams' prominence who stepped away while still dominant, but he pointed out that pregnancy only made non-sports celebrity Kim Kardashian more popular.
"This will enhance her likeability and certainly her marketability," Fechter said of Williams.
Industry officials agreed no existing sponsor would ever drop Williams as a spokeswoman because she remains at the top of her sport and any move by a company to distance itself from a pregnant woman would likely be heavily panned by the public.
"There are a lot of different products and a lot of different brands that will feature families, motherhood, young kids and here's somebody who would be potentially a great working mom if she continues her career," said Doug Shabelman, president of Burns Entertainment, which matches celebrities with corporate sponsors.
Williams certainly will be seen as a super mom when she returns to tennis, as she tries to go after the all-time singles record.
Motherhood may do little to slow Serena Williams's pursuit of grand slam success but more hungry opponents, if they emerge, could yet deny her the all-time singles record, the woman who holds that distinction told Reuters.
Australian great Margaret Court won 24 grand slam singles titles, one ahead of American Williams.
Court, 74, who straddled the sport's amateur and professional eras, was also the first mother to win a major as a professional. She took three of those titles in 1973, the year after giving birth to her first child Daniel.
But she rejoined the tour at 31 while Williams would be 36 if she came back as planned in 2018, a difference Court thought might play a role.
The only other mothers to win slams in the Open era are Court's compatriot Evonne Goolagong and Belgian Kim Clijsters who were both 26 when they came back.
"I don't know (if Serena can win another) ... It will depend whether she still feels like doing it. It’ll depend on her," Court said. "It depends who’s coming through, too."
On that point, Court felt women's tennis could still be at Williams's mercy, given no players had emerged to provide a sustained challenge to the American's dominance.
"There’s not the depth in the women’s game like there is in the men’s. It’s not good for women’s tennis which is a shame," she said.
Williams's "20 weeks" caption in a social media post on Wednesday suggested she was two months' pregnant when she won her 23rd grand slam at this year's Australian Open.
Court was also well into her term with Daniel when she lost the 1971 Wimbledon final to Goolagong. But she had no idea.
"Our first child was with me on the centre court. My coordination, my timing was all out and I thought: ‘what’s wrong with me?’
"Balls were dropping in and I was letting them go. Nobody knew. I went to the doctor and then I found out."
Court promptly stopped playing and was initially unsure if she would return.
But after giving birth, the former world number one's mind was made up and she began jogging around a park near her house with a pram to get fit.
Court and her husband Barry juggled baby Daniel alone, and he was often wailing in the grandstands during matches.
That situates her a world away from the comeback that, in the age of social media and multi-million dollar celebrity endorsements, would await Williams as a playing mother.
"It was nothing like they have today. They’ve got the money to do it," Court said of modern players with children.
"They could have their own planes. But we coped very well."
"But players are very blessed in these times and they should appreciate what’s been built before them. I don’t think they should ever forget that."