- Darren Rovell, ESPN.com Sports Business reporter
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LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Donald Young is the prime example that it's never too early to begin building the foundation for a long-term relationship.
Although Young has yet to sign his first endorsement deal, that is expected to change soon for the 15-year-old tennis prodigy who turned pro last October. The top-ranked player on the USTA's boys 16 division is nearing agreement on a deal with racquet maker Head, and could sign within the coming weeks.
As Young has put it, he'd like the chance to reward a company that believed in him six years ago.
"When I was nine, and no one else would sponsor me, Head was really good to me," Young said after making his USTA challenger debut this week, a 6-1, 2-6, 6-1 first-round loss to Dusan Vemic at the $100,000 Fifth Third Bank Tennis Championships. Vemic, the 218th-ranked player in the world, is 13 years older than Young.
Unlike Michelle Wie, the 14-year-old amateur golfer who sports a variety of branded equipment and apparel while maintaining her amateurism, Young has acknowledged only certain endorsement suitors. He's been so loyal to Head and Nike products, in fact, that many observers, including the writer of a story on the USTA's own Web site, assumed he'd already signed deals with the companies.
On Tuesday night, Nike's swoosh adorned Young's socks, hat and shoes, while he toted his Head racquets in a logoed bag and sang the company's praises. While neither Nike nor Head have paid endorsement fees to Young, both companies did provide him with clothes, shoes and racquets before he turned pro -- and still do, though they have no formal contract.
"A player should wear the product that they think is the best for their performance," said Gary Swain, who became Young's agent after discovering him working as ball boy during an exhibition involving John McEnroe five years ago. "That loyalty should continue until a time when the company doesn't offer you a deal that makes business sense. Wearing products with many different brands sends a message that you are not building on any one relationship."
With that in mind, Swain said it wouldn't look bad if Young didn't endorse Nike gear in the end, if the company didn't give him the best deal.
McEnroe began his career wearing Sergio Tacchini apparel but ended it with Nike. Over the years, McEnroe also endorsed racquets made by Wilson, Dunlop and Volkl. "It's very rare for a player to stay with one brand and not change companies during a career," Swain said.
An announcement about his client's endorsement deals -- which "will not be one-year deals," he insists -- is coming before the U.S. Open, Swain said. Head "fully expects to continue their relationship with Young," said Kevin Kempin, vice president of sales and marketing for Head/Penn racquet sports.
Kempin said Young, among 200 junior players who receive free products from Head, already has helped the company sell products. Junior players look up to Young in his local markets of Chicago and now Atlanta, where he moved in January, and the company believes he has the ability to affect their purchase decisions.
Twenty-nine of the top 100 players on the ATP Tour used Head racquets at Wimbledon, which was tops among racquet makers.
In December, Young became the first American since Jim Courier to win the Orange Bowl under-16 tournament, and was the youngest player to win the Easter Bowl boys 18 singles title in April. A victory at the Boys' National Championship, which will begin next week in Kalamazoo, Mich., will give him a wild-card entry into the U.S. Open.
Endorsement contracts signed with Young likely will be signed by one of his parents, Illona and Donald Sr., because a contract signed by a minor can, legally, be nullified at will.
"The real risk is that an athlete signs a multiyear deal with a company when he is not yet of age and the kid becomes great before his 18th birthday, and (there) is a lot of pressure from another company," said Mark Rosenthal, a Los Angeles lawyer who has dealt with endorsement contracts signed by minors. Rosenthal said only three states -- New York, California and Florida -- have laws on the books that validate contracts signed by underage athletes.
But agents who represent minor-aged athletes insist that the legal issue is not a deterrent.
When snowboarder Ross Powers signed a deal with Burton at the age of nine, his mother signed the contract with him.
"It's a complicated situation," said Phil de Picciotto, president of Octagon, which represents Powers, Michael Phelps, Anna Kournikova and seven-year-old skateboarder Mitchie Brusco. "The bottom line is that the legal risk of them being able to back out of a contract is very far down the list after considering the business risks of signing a young athlete in general."
Freddy Adu, the 15-year-old soccer phenom who plays for D.C. United, endorses Nike, Campbell's Soup and Sierra Mist. All of the contracts were signed by his mother, Emilia, but none have been court-ratified, according to his agent Richard Motzkin.
"It's a very lengthy process and it's not a real concern," Motkin said. "If the athlete has a good, long-term relationship with a company and they treat each other well, it's unlikely that the minor will try to get out of a deal."
Young said he's been getting less equipment and apparel from companies other than Head and Nike. Perhaps they are resigned to the fact that the battle for Young's services is over.
But then again his mother wore a Reebok shirt to Tuesday night's match.
Said Illona Young: "Nothing has been signed yet."
Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at Darren.email@example.com.
It's never too early to lay the foundation for deals with sports prodigies like Donald Young.