LONDON -- French Open champion Maria Sharapova is turning her sweet tooth into a profitable business.
She spent $500,000 to set up Sugarpova, her own candy brand, and the 25-year-old from Bradenton may more than double her money in the first year alone. She introduces it Friday in Australia, where she'll be seeded second when the tennis season's first major tournament starts in three days.
The gummy candy was first marketed in the United States in August, reaching 250,000 bags in the first three months, according to Max Eisenbud, Sharapova's agent at IMG Tennis. He's forecasting sales of 1 million bags in a year as distribution starts in Britain, Australia, Japan, Canada, Russia, India and China.
Sharapova, who gets as much as $1.10 per bag, says she's surprised by the success.
"We don't really have a big budget at all for marketing and advertisement," the four-time Grand Slam tournament winner said in an interview. "So it's pretty incredible that the awareness that it has so far is where it is."
Eisenbud said he spends about 60 percent of his time on Sugarpova. The sales, he said, come from "Maria's star power."
"Every week, everywhere she goes, people are talking to her about it," the agent said. "It's also the power of social media, the power of her almost 9 million fans on Facebook."
While researching the candy market, Eisenbud and Sharapova came to the conclusion that "there is no real brand recognition with gummies," said Eisenbud, the candy brand's chief executive officer.
The pair focused on producing a premium product, which is made in Spain, and colorful packaging. A bag of Sugarpova sells for as much as $5.99, or about six times the price of a bag of chewy sweets made by Haribo, the market leader.
"She's got an interesting niche positioning for herself, because she has no competitors right now," said Marcia Mogelonsky, director of insight at market researcher Mintel Food & Drink. "This is a part of the confectionery industry that doesn't have a premium segment."
Sharapova shot to global fame and became the world's best-paid female athlete when she won Wimbledon in 2004 at 17. A U.S. Open title followed in 2006 and an Australian Open in 2008.
Last year, she became the 10th woman to capture all four major tennis championships by winning the French Open. Her annual earnings from prize money and endorsements with the likes of Nike, Samsung Electronics and Tiffany are estimated at close to $28 million, according to Forbes.
"She's attractive and she's well-spoken," said Mogelonsky, who estimated the market for gummy candy in the U.S., Asia and Western Europe to be $28 billion last year. "Those two things right away help her. Sugarpova is a cute name. Even those who aren't focused on tennis might find the name intriguing, the packaging intriguing, and the flavors."
The problem Sugarpova faces is sustaining interest.
"If the candy is good, and if it catches and if she can keep this going more than a year, it should be good," Mogelonsky said.