2017 was the year women’s sport finally got some of the respect it deserves, from men. It’s the year British tennis player Andy Murray made a statement about women in sport: that they should be treated, spoken about and assessed in the same way as men.
After losing the Wimbledon quarterfinal in July to Sam Querry, Murray was asked his views about his opponent being the first American to reach the semi-final of a Grand Slam since 2009. Rather than provide an opinion, Murray corrected the journalist by stating that Querry was the only male player to achieve that feat.
For his troubles, Murray was lauded by Serena Williams who said female players “love” him for speaking out, and she had good reason to feel that way.
At least one of Serena or her sister Venus had played in the Wimbledon final for all but three years since the 2000. In 2017, with Serena out of action on maternity leave, Venus staged a remarkable comeback from an autoimmune condition, to become the oldest Grand Slam finalist in 23 years, underlining Murray’s point.
It’s only natural that our list of sportswomen to watch in 2018 starts with a tennis player but we also look at which women to watch at three major events and a runner with a proud record to preserve.
Sloane Stephens at the Australian Open
Not only did Sloane Stephens become only the fifth unseeded player to win a Grand Slam in the Open Era when she lifted the US Open Cup in September, but she also became the first American woman whose surname is not Williams to triumph at a major tournament since 2002. Her victory was made even more impressive because in 2016, she suffered a foot injury that sidelined her for 11 months and saw her ranking plummet to 957.
More important than Stephens’ victory for herself, was her emergence as a role-model for scores of young black African women. Stephens comes from a rich sporting pedigree – her father was an NFL player and her mother, a swimmer – and has been playing tennis since the age of nine. Though her form dipped towards the end of 2017, she has already shown she knows how to return strongly.
Nigerian Bobsled Team at the Winter Olympics
It’s unusual for Africa to be represented at the Winter Olympics, because the continent does not have the same lengthy period of cold (and often snow) needed for sports like ice-hockey and skiing but three Nigerian women, Seun Adigun, Ngozi Onwumere, and Akuoma Omeoga, aim to change that. The project is driven by Adigun, who once dreamed of becoming the first woman in the NBA, then changed her focus first to sprinting and now to bobsled – a sport in which teams of between two or four members make their way down twisting iced tracks on an engine-less sled.
Bobsled is an expensive pursuit that requires specialized equipment and training gear and, to that end, Adigun launched a gofundme campaign to raise $75,000 to aid her cause. The trio trained in western Canada and clocked impressive times in their first two qualifying events.
At the time of writing, they were placed 12th out of 13 participants in the North American Cup but with the cut off for the Winter Games only in January, they may have a surprise up their sleeves and could yet appear in South Korea.
Mary Keitany at the London Marathon
Think Kenya and you automatically think of runners and Mary Keitany is one of the country’s finest and quickest. A seasoned marathoner, Keitany has claimed gold medals everywhere from Seville to Delhi but she seems to save her best for the biggest races. She has won the London Marathon four times, and in 2017 broke the record for a women-only marathon, finishing in a time of 2:17:01. Doubtless, she will return to the event with an intent to dominate.
Also keep an eye out for her later in the year in November when the New York Marathon takes place. Keitany won the race in 2014, 2015 and 2016 but could not notch up a fourth consecutive win in 2017, finishing second to Shalane Flanagan. Pre-race, Keitany was tipped to win and to break the course record, something she will want to go back for in 2018.
South Africa’s Women’s Hockey Team at the Hockey World Cup
The only African women’s team at the Hockey World Cup, South Africa have historically been the continent’s strongest with stick in hand. They’ve qualified for the last five World Cups with a highest-placed finish of 7th in 1998, and have been the only African side at the event since Nigeria in 1978. But that does not mean it’s all plain sailing for them.
Though South Africa is better resourced then some of the other teams in Africa, they have also had recent hiccups. At the African Hockey Cup of Nations, played in Egypt in October 2017, the women’s team had to share a coach with the South African men’s side, but still managed to go on and win the event.
Impressively, they put 24 goals past their opposition and did not concede any, to maintain a clean sheet for the duration of the event. South Africa won all four of their group stage games and beat Ghana in the final.
Better news for the South African Women’s team is that they have smoothly transitioned from one corporate backer to another. Investec sponsored them for five years from 2009 to 2014 and when they chose not to renew their affiliation, Private Property stepped in.
African Women Cup of Nations
The continent’s favorite sport, football, will dominate 2018, with all eyes on Russia mid-year to see if an African country can finally go beyond the last eight at a World Cup. Then, attention will turn to qualification for the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations but the year will end with the African Women’s Championship in Ghana from November 17.
Unlike the men’s competition, which has been expanded to 24 teams from the usual 16, the women’s event is played between only eight teams which make the qualification, which will be contested among 24 teams, almost as important as the tournament itself.
It’s a two-stage process, the first of which will see 20 teams play off against each other over two legs with winners progressing to a second round, where the four highest-ranked African women’s sides, Nigeria, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea and South Africa, have been automatically included. The 10 winners and the four other teams will then have home and away play-offs, with the seven victors joining Ghana in the main tournament but the pressure does not stop there.
As important as being crowned queens of the continent is, there is also an added incentive to make it as far as the semi-finals. The finalists and the winner of the usually bland third-place playoff will qualify for the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France.
Only two countries have won the tournament in its 27 year history. Nigeria are 10-time and defending champions while Equatorial Guinea were crowned champions twice. – Written by Firdose Moonda
Naomi Osaka Is The Highest-Paid Athlete Ever, Topping Serena Williams
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.
Here Are All The Crazy Things People Are Betting On In The Absence Of Live Sports
TOPLINE With most live sports suspended during the coronavirus pandemic, online gamblers have turned to different contests like Russian table tennis and Korean baseball, while also betting on everything from video games and reality television shows to political news and even the weather.
- “[English] darts and esports have had big increases in betting volumes, along with football [soccer] leagues that have kept playing like the Belarusian Premier League,” says Pascal Lemesre, a spokesman for U.K. betting exchange platform Smarkets. “Horse racing remains our most-traded sport and has made up two-thirds of volume since the lockdown began.”
- Many betting companies, like DraftKings, had to really dig and get creative with new offerings during the pandemic, says Johnny Avello, head of sportsbook for DraftKings. “We went out and found whatever we could… we wanted to keep our customers engaged.”
- A charity golf match with Tiger Woods, Peyton Manning, Phil Mickleson and Tom Brady, for example, has drawn massive interest and could surpass the betting volumes DraftKings saw in last year’s major golf tournaments.
- Betting on esports has also seen a huge uptick and has really “made its mark,” he says: Virtual NASCAR races proved to be immensely popular, along with daily fantasy for video games like League of Legends and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.
- There has also been a lot of interest in betting on politics, including who will win the 2020 U.S. presidential election, who Democratic nominee Joe Biden will choose as his vice president and how long UK prime minister Boris Johnson will stay in office.
- According to data from Smarkets, almost $2 million has already been traded on the election, with Donald Trump retaining a 5% lead over Joe Biden; Kamala Harris is frontrunner to be Biden’s VP, slightly ahead of Amy Klobuchar.
- Since the Democratic debate between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders in mid-March, DraftKings has offered free-to-play betting pools around many political events, along with reality television shows like Survivor and Top Chef, and even the weather in certain states.
Bettors have certainly shown interest in gambling on the outcomes of their favorite TV shows: According to data from BetOnline, there was even a flurry of betting on the final episode of The Last Dance, with odds on things like whether Michael Jordan would cry while being interviewed or how many people would be shown with a cigar in their mouth.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Sportsbooks are seeing huge pent-up demand as some major sports like NASCAR and German Bundesliga soccer start to resume. Soccer, which normally makes up 45% of the Smarkets’ betting volume, fell to 23%, maintained largely by interest in the Belarusian Premier League and Nicaraguan soccer, both of which continued to play games amid the pandemic. With the German Bundesliga resuming last weekend, betting volumes increased 428% compared to the previous round of fixtures before coronavirus, according to Smarkets.
“When you don’t have all the normal content, customers will migrate,” Avello says. “That’s the positive that’s going to come out of this—we’re always looking for additional content.”
DraftKings reported record betting during the NFL Draft last month—13x the volume from last year—and has also seen strong interest in the recent return of Ultimate Fighting Championship events, the company said. “We got good action on the stuff we did, but now that we’re starting to get back to core events, demand should rise even higher,” Avello predicts. If the NBA and NHL start playoff seasons this summer and the MLB returns, for instance, “it could be one of the bigger summers that we’ve ever had.”
Wayde van Niekerk: ‘Lockdown Meant Shifting Back To Hibernation To Train And Strengthen Myself’
Recovering from a knee injury the last two years, this Olympian sprinter was all set to defend his title at the Tokyo 2020 Games. In lockdown in South Africa, the ardent Mo Salah and Liverpool fan shares how he has been building his endurance and finding positivity in the chaos.
Nothing can get a good sportsman down.
Ask Cape Town-born Wayde van Niekerk, who made history at the 2016 Rio Olympics with a record-breaking performance as a track and field athlete.
In a way, the five-week government-imposed lockdown in South Africa was an extension of Van Niekerk’s own time away from the limelight, when he was already used to living and training indoors, consistently building on his physical and mental endurance.
The serious knee injury in 2017 that kept him away from the track had meant “a hibernation” of a different kind when he was steering himself for the next big competition returning to the field again in 2020.
This was also going to be the year he was going to defend his 400m world record at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
“I came out of an injury, and it led to me entering a hibernation period of my life where a lot happened, internally, indoors, away from the TV screens,” says Van Niekerk on a Zoom interview with FORBES AFRICA from his home in Bloemfontein in South Africa’s Free State province, a day after the country lifted the lockdown with Level 4 restrictions.
“As this year started, I had shifted my mentality to becoming an athlete again, and getting ready for the next major competition, and then Covid-19 started, and that led to me taking a step back and shift back to the hibernation stage of training and strengthening myself.
“I am blessed and privileged to have equipment around me and a gym setup at home. So I was well-prepared before even the pandemic… but you do miss the track but this pandemic is something we all have to face.”
The 28-year-old, who showed promise from an early age, and who was also listed as one of FORBES AFRICA’s 30 Under 30 achievers in 2019, says he has been using the time to find peace in chaos.
“What I have learned is to try and find that peace, that positivity and calm in this storm. It’s a mentality shift that I had to meditate on, that I build a positive foundation, that I reap every strength and positivity invested in me, that once I come out of the injury, I come out stronger. Now, I am making sure my physical and mental strength can complement one another.”
With the Tokyo 2020 Games now postponed owing to the Covid-19 pandemic, did it give him the gift of time?
“Not really. Every time is a blessing,” says Van Niekerk. “I prepared myself for that this year, but reality is what it is. And we can’t be dwelling on the losses… we can either see it as time lost or there is a goal I have set for myself, the way I am going to get it is not important. It doesn’t matter the platform it happens on, as long as it happens. I have been investing my time into it.”
From 200m events as a junior athlete, to a 400m specialist later in life, Van Niekerk is clearly among the most versatile sprinters in the history of the sport.
You can sense it’s no fake modesty when he tells you that the time away from the track has also made him want to do more for the less fortunate around him. The attention is not on himself.
“I find it difficult to focus on just me… I am very passionate about helping those around me. I am not a fan of wanting to do things that become a media event,” he says simply.
“We are going through this period to cleanse and strengthen ourselves… Forget about who you are, and see whose lives you can make easier. The people who are struggling now are the people who will give you the biggest smile and who will give you the confidence. And now it’s time for us as sports people and as human beings to find ways to consider those around us who are less fortunate and not as blessed as we are.”
The transition from indoor fitness to outdoor training, once the lockdown regulations are fully lifted, is not going to be an easy one.
“There are a lot of technical things to it in terms of getting 100% race-fit for an international stage and trying to do some competitions; to just shake off that rust and to get the legs going and the body moving and the blood flowing again. There is a massive difference between a gym workout and being a track athlete. There will be a whole few months before we get to be at the level and shape where we can improve ourselves as athletes,” he says.
The ardent Mo Salah and Liverpool fan has also been engaging with his network of sports comrades around the world. Jamaican former sprinter Usain Bolt is a good friend. You ask if he has been in touch.
“I communicate with most, but Usain is more about the banter. He’s always teasing me about the Premier League not going to finish, so they keep trying to tap into that nerve of mine as I am a passionate Liverpool supporter. So I am trying not to entertain that side of them,” laughs Van Niekerk.
As a child, Van Niekerk dreamed of becoming the fastest man in the world. It’s a dream that still keeps the speedster going.
“It is what I have been investing in ever since I was young, and what I want to achieve. With the barriers I broke came confidence, and why not believe in what I can achieve? I am invested 110% to want to improve the 100m, 200m and up to 400m, and I am more hungry and determined than ever before!”
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