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Naomi Osaka Is The Highest-Paid Athlete Ever, Topping Serena Williams

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The 22-year-old Japanese tennis player racked up $37 million in earnings in the past year, more than any other female athlete in history.

Naomi Osaka was only a year old when Serena Williams won her first grand slam title in 1999. Nineteen years later, Osaka beat Williams at the U.S. Open finals to win her first grand slam. It was one of the most controversial matches in Open history involving three code violations called against Williams. Now the 22-year-old ace has beaten her legendary rival once again, this time for bragging rights as the highest-paid female athlete in the world.

Osaka earned $37.4 million the last 12 months from prize money and endorsements, $1.4 million more than Serena, setting an all-time earnings record for any female athlete in a single year; Maria Sharapova held the prior record with $29.7 million in 2015.

Osaka ranks No. 29 among the 100 highest-paid athletes, while Williams is No. 33. It’s the first time since 2016 that two women have made the ranks of the top 100 highest paid athletes, with the full 2020 list set for release next week.

“To those outside the tennis world, Osaka is a relatively fresh face with a great back story,” says David Carter, a sports business professor at USC Marshall School of Business. “Combine that with being youthful and bicultural, two attributes that help her resonate with younger, global audiences, and the result is the emergence of a global sports marketing icon.”

The ascension puts an end to a decisive winning streak for Williams, who has been the world’s highest-paid female athlete each of the past four years, with annual pre-tax income ranging from $18 million to $29 million. The 23-time grand slam champion has collected almost $300 million during her career from endorsers who have swarmed the 38-year-old star.

Osaka’s rise to the head of the charts was a perfect  convergence of several factors. She first proved herself on the court, with back-to-back grand slam titles at the 2018 U.S. Open and 2019 Australian Open. That plus her heritage—a Japanese mother and Haitian-American father—helped separate her from the pack; at only 20 when she won her Open title, she had a cool factor and engaging personality.

Osaka’s roots are crucial to her endorsement stardom. She was born in Japan. When she was three, she and her family moved to the U.S., settling on Long Island and then heading to Florida; older sister, Mari, also plays on the pro circuit.

She turned pro in 2014, a month before her 16th birthday. She cracked the WTA’s top 40 in 2016 and won her first title in March 2018 at Indian Wells. In the 12 months that followed, she became the first Japanese player to win a slam, and first Asian tennis player ever to be ranked No. 1 in the world.

Osaka maintains dual citizenship but made the wise choice to represent Japan ahead of the since-postponed Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics. The decision made her an even hotter commodity for Olympic sponsors, like Procter & Gamble, All Nippon Airways and Nissin, who signed endorsement deals with Osaka to use her around marketing for the Games, now scheduled for summer 2021. She is expected to be one of the faces of the Olympics that had triggered unprecedented levels of excitement among the Japanese public before the coronavirus.

A Decade Of Highest-Paid Female Athletes

Tennis has been a winning strategy for highest-paid female athletes. Before Naomi Osaka arrived on the scene, Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams were the top earning women of the decade, holding the top spot for five and four years, respectively.

The last top-earning female athlete, outside of Williams and Sharapova, was Serena’s sister Venus in 2003. Tennis remains the only route for women to rank among the top-paid male sports stars. Sharapova, Li Na, Serena, and now Osaka are the only females to rank among the 100 top earners in sports since 2012. The highest-paid female athlete every year since Forbes started tracking the data in 1990 has been a tennis player, with Steffi Graf and Martina Hingis the top earners most of the 1990s. 

Tennis players are walking billboards in the only major global sport where men and women have some level of equality in their paychecks, thanks to similarly sized audiences tuning in to watch tournaments. Prize money at the four grand slam events has been even since 2007, although men still earn more at lower level tourneys.

The demographics of the tennis fan make sponsoring top players attractive for brands. At the U.S. Open last year, attendance skewed in favor of women by a ratio of 56 to 44, a rarity at big time sporting events; 78% held at least a bachelor’s degree versus 35% for the U.S. overall; the average household income was $216,000. This is a group with significant disposable income, ready to buy apparel, sporting equipment, cars, watches and financial services.

Steering Osaka’s brand is tennis powerhouse agency IMG, which leaned on its history with breakout female tennis stars when Osaka started blowing up, having represented Maria Sharapova and Li. Stuart Duguid is her lead agent at IMG.

The apparel deal is almost always the biggest endorsement for tennis stars, and Osaka’s timing was perfect there as well, as she hit the open market just after winning two grand slams. It triggered a free agency bidding war between Nike and Adidas—her previous apparel sponsor. The Swoosh emerged on top and paid her more than $10 million last year in an agreement that runs through 2025.

Osaka secured an extremely rare but lucrative provision in her Nike contract. The sportswear giant always requires its tennis players to be clad in Nike gear from head to toe, without any other logos on their shirts or hats. This is lucrative real estate for marketers, as cameras focus closely on the player as they serve or get set to return serve.

Nike never made an exemption for Serena, Sharapova, John McEnroe, Andre Agassi or any of the other marketable tennis stars in their stable. The only exception until last year was China’s Li Na; Osaka was the second, thanks to massive leverage with Sharapova headed for retirement and Williams turning 39 this year. Her “patch” deals are with All Nippon Airways, MasterCard and ramen noodle maker Nissin Foods.

Nike plans to launch an Osaka streetwear line in Japan in the fourth quarter, featuring hoodies, leggings and shirts, as well as a new collection each season. There will not be any tennis apparel.

Osaka now has 15 endorsement partners, including global brands like Nissan Motor, Shiseido and Yonex, whose tennis racquets she has used for more than a decade; almost all are worth seven-figures annually. 

Sharapova was 17 when she defeated Williams to win the 2004 Wimbledon crown. IMG quickly mobilized to lock up lucrative long-term deals for the Russian, who ranked as the highest-paid female athlete for 11 years before injuries and a suspension for taking a banned substance dented her earnings.

IMG got an education on marketing a female Asian tennis star with China’s Li. She was the first grand slam singles champion from Asia, man or woman, when she captured the 2011 French Open at age 29. IMG quickly secured seven multi-million deals, pushing her off-court earnings from $2 million to $20 million. She challenged Sharapova as the sport’s top earner until her retirement in 2014.

IMG used its expertise in Japan with Kei Nishikori, who has never won a grand slam but is the most successful Japanese male player ever, resulting in an endorsement portfolio worth $30 million a year.

Sharapova, Li and Nishikori paved the way for Osaka’s marketing breakthrough. “We were fortunate to have a very sophisticated office in Tokyo that already had the experience with Kei,” IMG’s head of tennis Max Eisenbud told Forbes last year. “The relationships in that region are important.”

With plenty of endorsement cash, Osaka partnered with several brands last year, with significant equity components, including emerging sports drink BodyArmor and Hyperice, which makes recovery and movement products.

BodyArmor marketing exec Mike Fedele says Osaka was one of inspirations for its “Only You” ad campaign launched this week. “Naomi is fiercely dedicated to perfecting her game on the court and a huge part of that is what she does off the court with her training, nutrition and hydration,”he says.

“I’m really interested in seeing a young business grow and adding value to that process,” Osaka told Forbes last year. “I tasked my team with finding brands that align with my personality and my interests.”

Brands are lining up to get into the Naomi Osaka business.

Kurt Badenhausen, Forbes Staff, SportsMoney

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