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??

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  1. Dennis says:

    How do they explain Kurnikova then?

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  2. KLO says:

    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.

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  3. Blake says:

    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?

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  4. Blake says:

    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.

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  5. Gary says:

    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.

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  6. mark says:


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