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The Williams Sisters and Coca-Cola: Archives reveal what could have been

To mark the recent release of the Richard Williams biopic King Richard, UMass's Steve McKelvey and Stephanie Ann take a look through the Mark H. McCormack archives to tell the story of the Williams Sisters' history with Coca-Cola and a commercial relationship that never quite got off the ground.

With the current worldwide release of the movie King Richard, executive produced by Venus and Serena Williams about their father, Richard, it’s easy for audiences to understand exactly how much influence Richard had over two of his children in the world of tennis. However, not every part of the business can be planned, and even Richard realised he was going to need help with some of the off-the-court marketing of his daughters.

Materials documenting the early years of the relationship between Mark McCormack, his IMG agency, and the Williams family are among the thousands of documents housed by the Special Collections and University Archives at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

On September 27, 1999, IMG announced both Venus and Serena Williams had exclusively signed with their sports marketing firm with an emailed press release. The announcement specifically names Stephanie Tolleson, IMG’s senior international vice president, as the main point of contact for the whole representation team. The team immediately started finding potential partners for the sisters.

Within three months of joining, Venus and Serena had filmed a television commercial for Coca-Cola Japan’s Aquarius drink. The contract was for a meagre (by today’s standards) $750,000, and the commercial campaign also included MLB pitcher Randy Johnson. You can still find the 30-second Japanese spot on YouTube.

This deal between the Williams sisters and Coca-Cola Japan’s agency, Dentsu, was primarily negotiated by an relative unknown in IMG’s Tokyo office, a T. Joyama. Regardless of who negotiated the Japanese commercial deal for the sisters, the point remains the same: Richard Williams would very likely not have been able to secure  this sort of big-ticket international endorsement deal on his own.

By July of 2000, and on the heels of the successful commercial endorsement of Coca-Cola Japan, both Venus and Serena informed their IMG team that they wished to secure a larger, long-term relationship with Coca-Cola. The sisters’ hope was to sign with Diet Coke, specifically, something that wouldn’t interfere with any business opportunities the family had in the works.

Without having any immediate connections to Coca-Cola in the US, it was necessary for Tolleson’s team to find the best direct route into the company. One course of action was to leverage IMG’s international reach to start the negotiation process.

After hearing a rumour that McCormack had met the president of Coke in London at Wimbledon, one team member decided to ask McCormack if he could make an introduction. This request was nothing new for IMG. McCormack was naturally willing to use his personal network to benefit his company’s clients.

This practice came in handy when Tolleson sent McCormack an email summarizing all the conversations the Williams sisters’ representation team had had with Coca-Cola domestically up to the fall of 2000. At the same time, Richard Williams (and his daughters, by extension) was developing both an oxygen-rich bottled water under the name of SerVen Rich, Inc. (get it?!) and an isotonic sports drink called Smash.

IMG knew about both opportunities, which drove the IMG team to seek to put more pressure on Coca-Cola for a larger deal. While Venus and Serena had been hoping for a long-term relationship, it had become apparent that Coca-Cola only wanted to sign them for a one-time celebrity commercial endorsement deal, and as the dialogue stalled, a memo from Tolleson to McCormack asks for his help in restarting discussions with Coca-Cola.

McCormack was able to jump in. A week before the chief executive’s meeting with Coke in November 2000, Peter Johnson, an executive member of the Williams sisters’ IMG team, briefed McCormack on the power players at Coke. The message also came with a direct warning: no one is willing to pull the trigger on signing Venus and Serena, but Coke executives were hoping to begin a relationship with IMG that matched their business dealings with CAA clients.

Unfortunately, Johnson’s observation came true and the conversation stalled again. This time, however, the Williams family had their other business interests in place. By the middle of 2001, SerVen Rich water joined the marketplace and the sports drink Smash was on track for a year-end launch. Venus and Serena were marketing fixtures for both beverages and these partnerships continued through 2002.

The final nail to any potential deal between the Williams sisters and Coca-Cola came around 2004, when Serena signed a “lifetime partnership” (her words) with Gatorade, a Pepsi company. That relationship remains still to this day; just last year, Serena designed her own limited-edition, reusable Gatorade bottle as part of the Gx campaign.

Venus, meanwhile, is currently busy promoting her plant-based protein company, Happy Viking, and continues to maintain a vegan diet as part of her commitment to lessen the effects of the autoimmune disorder with which she was diagnosed in 2011.

Steve McKelvey is Chair of the Mark H McCormack Department of Sport Management in the Isenberg School of Management at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Stephanie Ann is a first-year dual degree student and the McCormack Archives Graduate Assistant.