The Sharapova Effect

(Photo: Tim Wang)

recent paper (full PDF here) by Young Hoon Lee and Seung Chan Ahn makes a clever point about occupations in which people are paid for a main activity and a secondary area where success depends on productivity in the main activity.  If success in the latter also depends on some other characteristic, people who are well-endowed with that characteristic will invest more in the skills needed to be productive in the main activity: the incentives created by that synergy will spill over to earnings in the main activity. 

Their example is the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA).  Better-looking golfers get lower scores (perform better) — but only going from average-lookers to the best-looking. Below the average, there’s no effect of differences in looks on tournament scores.  That makes sense — you probably won’t get more endorsement opportunities if you’re average-looking instead of bad-looking.  Although not golf, one might call this the Sharapova Effect. Are there other labor markets, or other activities, in which a similarly unusual synergy exists??


Interesting premise. Perhaps a little too interesting lol. Perhaps, rather than focusing on just looks, maybe there are other factors such as expenses (how many kids?, ex spouses?, lavish life style) as well as keeping up an endorsement stream. Hard to separate the chicken and egg scenario. Endorsements also can come from superior performance in many, but admittedly not not all cases. Superior performers have longer periods of success in their careers and likely get more endorsements based on performance and past performance alone. Maybe it's just past success lead to incentive for further success.

I can think of some exceptions to all this such as Danica Patrick and Anna Kournikova who have made more money chiefly outside their sport (I'm guessing). Based on purely looks and sex appeal, women sports figures likely have more incentive for a secondary income based on things outside the sports arena since in many cases they may not make as much money as their male counterparts. I'm sure the reverse it true too: There are men who appeal to women and other men, but seems like young attractive women athletes are far more likely to make money on their looks. All a guess without real analysis, but a guess is this is all at least only partially true. However, intelligent, articulate, attractive athletes (male or female) will be more successful outside the lines in any case, just like real life.



During the Olympics I heard -- on public radio, maybe? -- that female Olympic athletes tend to get more lucrative sponsorship deals than male ones do.




I expect the OPPOSITE outcome – better looking people get promoted despite mediocre performance; ugly people need stellar performance to get similar promotions. Perhaps this dynamic is moderated/eliminated in contexts in which promotions are based on rather objective measures, such as golf scores.


While not having anything to do with looks, the most famous athlete whose commercial endorsement income dwarfed his income as a professional athlete was Michael Jordan. Jordan realized that it was in his best interest to allow the Bulls to surround him with great players in order to win championships, players who would demand large contracts. I believe that his last season, the Bulls rewarded him with an insanely large contract, but by then, Jordan had won 6 rings.

Eric M. Jones.

Many times people who are called "good looking" are mostly just very physically fit.

Simon Boswell

Do average academics produce better work if they happen to be good public speakers?


Maybe I'm missing something but looking at the Rolex Rankings for the LPGA tour, the women are certainly not in order of beauty.

Steve Bennett

What you're missing is the difference between a casual glance and actual research.


I don't see how this link in incomes would lead to the observed correlation. If anything, I'd expect the opposite - great looking but mediocre (for professionals) golfers would be more inclined to keep playing because the payoff if they make it to the top is greater.

Perhaps the top players get cosmetic surgery, either because it makes economic sense to do so (to get better endorsement opportunities) or because they can afford it.

I like Jeffrey's observation about it being in Michael Jorden's interest to take a low base salary to allow his team to hire good players to accompany him. A similar approach would be to partly pay players with equity in the team. I'm guessing that in sports with salary caps, this isn't allowed.

Steve Bennett

The OP's explanation was a bit unclear. I think he's saying that given two equally talented golfers, the better looking one has a greater incentive to succeed (due to endorsements, promotional opportunities etc), so will invest more time, money, energy in her sport. It's as if she's playing for significantly more prizemoney. Presumably this only works to a point - once you get to a "maximally professional" sport like european soccer or F1 or something, then they're already getting paid so much and working so hard, that any further incentive changes nothing.


How do they explain Kurnikova then?


It is hard to believe that success in female sports has much, if anything, to do with appearance. Female athletes tend to peak very early on in life, which means that only female athletes who took up their sport at a very early age, often at the urging of their parents, are competitive professionally later on. Much of a female athlete's ability is, therefore, attributable to decisions made before she ever even hit puberty by people -- her parents -- whose behavior would not be greatly influenced by her appearance. Sorry, this is one of the dumbest hypotheses I have ever come across.


I remember learning in a psycology course about a theory similar to this "Sharapova Effect". Essentially, the theory hypothesized that better-looking people performed better academically than they otherwise would have. According to the theory, this is because teachers tend to give better-looking students more academic attention and praise in the lower grades, and this praise and attention leads to more learning and better performance in higher grades. I'm not sure if any actual data was gathered to support this theory, but it's important to note that the theory never implied that pretty people came out smarter than unpretty people. Rather, it hypothesized that pretty people perform better than they otherwise would have because they received plenty of attention thanks to their good looks. Do you buy it?


I believe the article is simply stating that more attractive athletes have the potential to score lucrative endorsement deals if they perform at a reasonable level to warrant it (not necessarily at the top). Therefore, they have an incentive to work harder at their sport than a less-attractive athlete. Kurnikova never had the potential to be at the top, but she had an incentive to be better than she otherwise would have been because there was money to be made from endorsements. Those endorsements run dry if the athlete is not performing at a sort of "minimum standard". I would argue, however, that endorsement and media attention can negatively effect training and performance.


Exceptional athletic ability is required to succeed in any major league sport as the primary career. Sports commentary as a follow-up career requires different skills. Although some average athletes get media jobs (I can think of a couple on local sports radio shows), the plum jobs (national shows) seem to go to those who were more successful in the primary career.