NEW YORK (AP) -- In April, when her five-year, $12 million endorsement deal with Reebok expired, Venus Williams was struggling with a wrist injury, and the company was consolidating.
Shortly after that, things turned around for both of them. Williams embarked on a 35-match winning streak that included victories at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the Olympics, and Reebok rebounded.
That created the perfect environment for a new contract, a reported five-year, $40 million deal believed to be the richest endorsement contract ever for a woman athlete.
"I won't deny the reports that have been put out there," said Angel Martinez, chief marketing officer for Reebok. "If the reports were far off base, I'd be jumping up and down and would let you know that."
Martinez was not jumping up and down.
Huge endorsement deals are rare in women's sports. Monica Seles signed a five-year, $25 million deal with Nike after returning to the women's tennis tour in 1996. Martina Hingis has a six-year Nike contract that pays close to $30 million.
Nike also has endorsement agreements with Mia Hamm, Lindsay Davenport, Lisa Leslie and Marion Jones. All of them are substantially lower than the deals for male athletes. The company has a reported $100 million deal with Tiger Woods, and Michael Jordan's annual endorsement income is about $40 million.
Among women athletes, Anna Kournikova might have the richest deal of all, a six-year contract with Adidas worth $50 million. But that agreement only guarantees about $3 million a year and requires reaching many incentives, including Grand Slam victories and high rankings for a player who has yet to win her first tournament.
Donna Lopiano, executive director of the Women's Sports Foundation, congratulated Williams on the landmark deal.
"There is no doubt that this endorsement agreement represents the largest such commitment to any female athlete," she said. "This is an important precedent for women's sports that announces a new era in the corporate valuing of the female athlete."
David Bober, who represents Hamm, agreed.
"That's a pretty significant contract for a female athlete," he said. "It can only help shorten the gap between male and female athletes on endorsements. It's another signal that we are moving toward parity, a clear message that women's sports are here to stay."
Williams wasn't about to confirm the numbers on the deal.
"The terms are confidential," she said. "I'll wear Reebok wherever I go. It's a company I believe in. We don't jump on bandwagons."
Martinez said the 20-year-old star remained the company's priority, even after their original deal had expired.
"We made a decision there is no better athlete to represent our brand," he said. "When she won tournament after tournament, it added to our excitement."
Williams recognized the significance of the contract.
"I have to be the best in everything I do," she said. "We've come a long way with the WNBA and the soccer players. I'm doing what I can. Maybe that's the most important part.
"This is a big moment in my life. This is another part of reaching out for my dreams."
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