Athletic footwear designer Fila and Jennifer Capriati have more in common than their Italian roots: both made big names for themselves on the tennis court, fell into slumps and are fighting to come back.
Each will attempt to help the other do just that through a multimillion-dollar, three-year endorsement agreement that Sparks-based Fila U.S.A. Inc. said yesterday it has reached with the 23-year-old tennis star.
Capriati will compete wearing Fila tennis shoes and apparel, appear in Fila advertising, make personal appearances at retail stores and conduct children's tennis clinics at events.
The former top-10 player has had her share of well-publicized troubles since 1991 when she became the youngest-ever women's semifinalist at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. After a rebellious period as a teen-ager and absences totaling more than two years from the Women's Tennis Association Tour, Capriati started 1999 ranked 139th, but wound up 23rd.
But Capriati's determination this year attracted the attention of Fila USA. For one thing, Fila felt it shared a bond with the tennis player, said company spokesman Howe Burch.
"She's making a comeback, as we're making a comeback," he said. "She shares our values. She's resilient and determined to succeed. We see Jennifer as a metaphor for what we're about as a company."
Fila has been struggling itself, trying to boost its 10 percent share of the $1 billion U.S. tennis footwear and apparel market. For the third quarter, which ended Sept. 30, Fila reported that apparel sales fell 20 percent, while sales of footwear plunged 40 percent.
Last year Fila, which has had difficulty competing with dominant companies such as Nike Inc. and Adidas, lost $132.9 million. In June, the division's parent, Biella, Italy-based Fila Holding SpA, took a step to refocus on its tennis heritage, becoming sponsor and supplier of the Association of Tennis Professionals Tour Super 9. That has so far allowed Fila to increase its channels of distribution, with more Fila tennis products now sold at Sports Authority and Champs Sports, though sales results won't be out until spring, Burch said.
Also since then, Fila has been able to put its products into an additional 500 small retailers throughout the United States.
Signing Capriati, who has the potential to earn a couple of million dollars a year depending on her WTA ranking, was another move in that direction, Burch said. It represents somewhat of a shift for Fila, which has been known for sponsoring fewer athletes than some rivals as well as for pursuing only the top echelon in a given sport.
With Capriati, "obviously there are financial considerations, which are in play, but more importantly, we think it's what her potential has to offer," Burch said. "Her notoriety and her awareness is equal to many of the top players in the game. It's all about what we see in the future. We see that to be very promising for her."
For Capriati, who visited Fila's York Road headquarters for the first time yesterday, getting the sponsorship is another sign that she has very nearly "come back."
While she has been playing over the past few years, "it hasn't been consistent," she said during her visit. "More recently, I've made more of a commitment, and my rankings have improved. I've realized it's what I want to do. I've realized I love the game of tennis, and I'm happy playing it."
Capriati, a 1992 Olympic gold medalist who lives in Florida, reached the fourth round of the U.S. Open and French Open tournaments this year and recently won the Strasbourg Open, Bell challenge and A&P Classic.
As a teen-ager, Capriati had undergone what she had described as "quiet rebellion," when she faced arrests for shoplifting a $15 ring and when police discovered a small amount of marijuana in her possession at a party. More recently, she has publicly apologized and said she hopes to move on.
"We're aware of and sensitive to some of the issues Jennifer faced growing up," Burch said. "Our attitude is, all of us in our adolescent years, particularly when you're 14 or 15, did something we regretted doing. She has recognized some of the missteps she's made, and we certainly don't think she should have to bear the burden of those mistakes for the rest of her life."
Yesterday, Capriati said she is "looking ahead to the future. You don't forget [the past], you use it to make you stronger."
It is difficult to measure the return Fila can expect on its sponsorship investment, analysts said.
"There's no way to get at the answer, not in numbers," said John G. Taylor, an athletic footwear analyst with Arcadia Investment Corp. in Portland, Ore. "The reason companies sign endorsement contracts with a visible athlete is to lend an air of authenticity to their product line."
Companies such as Nike have backed off in recent years from signing as many endorsement agreements, he said.
"There's been consumer fatigue with some of the antics of professional athletes, and as a result of that, many of the big brands have found less of a direct [link] between lots of sponsorships and lots of sales," he said.