There may be no live tennis action happening but in the last few days, Naomi Osaka has been in the news for two major reasons.
The 22-year-old became the highest-earning female athlete in the 2020 Forbes list with a record amount. The Japanese star is also championing the ongoing protests against racism with constant social media posts, and not hesitating to even subtly call out more established players for lip service.
The first part was expected, given she has become one of the biggest sportstars especially in Japan, since her breakthrough run in 2018-19 and was the face of the Tokyo Olympics, with substantial sponsor backing.
The second seems more unconventional for the player who has often come across as painfully shy and has openly admitted that her awkwardness has held her back from pursuing what she desires.
Her marketability and activism may not be connected directly, but the fact that brand Osaka and firebrand Osaka are converging at this time further cements what many tennis followers have only got a glimpse of before – there is a lot more nuance to the Naomi Osaka story, which goes beyond tennis.
Osaka, who grew up in the United States and has Haitian and Japanese roots has often stood out from her contemporaries for several reasons.
A unique player
The former world No 1 has had a roller-coaster career so far and she is only 22. Her breakthrough moment came at the 2018 US Open, when she beat idol Serena Williams to win her first Grand Slam title in a very controversial final. She became only the third female player in the decade to win back-to-back Majors when she lifted the 2019 Australia Open .
But much before she won the US Open and was praised for her calm while Williams was in meltdown mode, Osaka was seen as a bright young star. The 2016 WTA newcomer of the year’s first big trophy was the 2018 Indian Wells where she beat Simona Halep and Karolina Pliskova. At Miami Masters, she defeated Williams, who was returning from her maternity break.
Off court, she was known to make Pokemon references, channel Serena while playing and be jovial in interviews.
But it all changed soon, as she became the first Asian to be No 1 in the women’s or men’s tennis rankings. With her rise came pressure and she felt it, most recently falling to rising star Coco Gauff at the Australian Open, where she was defending champion. There was the fear that she would fade further away, but for the extended break in sport due to the coronavirus pandemic. In a way, this time has given her a chance to blossom without pressure and she has done just that.
Interestingly, Osaka wasn’t even ranked on Forbes top 100 list of highest-paid athletes in 2019. Serena was the only woman to be ranked in that list. This year, she is *29th on the list which has opened the way for two women to be ranked in the top 100 for the first time since 2016.
According to Forbes, Osaka earned $37.4 million the last 12 months from prize money and endorsements, which is an all-time earnings record for a female athlete in a single year, breaking Maria Sharapova’s record of $29.7 million in 2015. This is $1.4 million more than Serena for the year.
According to WTA, Osaka has won about $14.6 million in career prize money. As per Forbes, in the past year (June to June), she has earned about $30 million from sponsorship and endorsement deals while $3.4 came from her salary.
There are several reasons for this huge jump in off-court earning, even as a slide – by the standard the current world No 10 had set – began with an early loss at French Open and Wimbledon began this time last year.
Chief among this are the lucrative endorsement deals after her rise to prominence and the rankings. The fact that she is with the management group IMG, who have successfully made tennis players such as Sharapova, Li Na, Kei Nishikori into big brands and know the Asian market well, was a huge advantage.
She currently has 15 sponsorship deals, including with All Nippon Airways, BodyArmor, Mastercard, Nike, Nissan Motor, Nissin Foods Holdings, Procter & Gamble, Shiseido, Yonex. Most of these are worth seven figures annually.
The 22-year-old is also Nike’s big catch, signing on after her two Major wins in April 2019. According to Forbes, they paid her more than $10 million and the agreement runs till 2025. After winning her titles with Adidas, she passed on other offers that included Japanese brand Uniqlo, according to some media outlets. On their part, Nike has given Osaka special dispensation that even Williams or Rafael Nadal don’t have – to have patches of other brands on her apparel. The Forbes report said that only Li Na, the first Asian tennis superstar, has been allowed by Nike to have other sponsors represented on her kit.
Then there is the crucial Japan connection, which enhances her brand value. Nishikori, the biggest Japanese tennis star before Osaka, has regularly featured in the Forbes list even though he doesn’t have big titles. Another report by the financial publication stated that only Roger Federer makes more than Nishikori off the court in tennis. It’s a clear indication of how big the Japanese market is.
Interestingly, women’s tennis wasn’t given much importance in the country before, as one Japanese player mentioned to this writer, but Osaka made it popular enough to be shown on television regularly.
When Osaka officially chose Japanese citizenship over the US last September ahead of her 22nd birthday, she ensured that she continues to be a marketable name for the big commercial market in Asia. With the Tokyo Games imminent, many Olympic sponsors also tied up with her as she was the global face of the event. Even with the Summer Games delayed, it is unlikely that she won’t be associated with it and that means a long-term connection with the sponsors as well.
While the development of her brand has been a long process, the firebrand personality feels very recent, and refreshing.
In an interview published on May 13, days before George Floyd’s death at the hands of a police officer triggered protests against racism and police brutality in US, Osaka had told CNN that one of her biggest regrets is not speaking out what she thinking.
“There’s a lot of times where I see myself in situations where I could have put my input in,” she said. “But instead, I’ve held my tongue and things kept moving in a way that I didn’t really enjoy. I feel like if I asserted myself I would have gotten the opportunity to see what would have happened.”
A little over a week after, Osaka would not be holding back.
Her usually fun and light-hearted social media feed changed after Floyd’s death as she took a firm stand against racism. She has joined protests, posted about it extensively, taken on trolls with stinging rebukes, and not hesitated to call out the mere lips service of #blackOutTuesday (where many celebrities, including the top tennis players posted a black image), people who appropriate black culture but were silent, and the NFL for what happened with Colin Kaepernick. She even subtweeted John Isner, who is known to be a Donald Trump supporter, for talking about the lootings and violent protests without even mentioning the cause.
In the past, Osaka has not been as vocal about controversial issues. Many news outlets quoted the incident when a Japanese comedy duo said she was “too sunburned” and “needed some bleach” , a racist comment as well, but she kept the jest and plugged her sponsor Shiseido’s sunscreen.
But as she said on Twitter, her time of silence is over. Over the last few days, she has taken on critics and trolls with witty and hard-hitting responses, steadily shining a light on racism, from the US to Japan.
Early success, using social media to make her voice count, her biracial identity, her sincerity on court – remember the post-match moment with Coco Gauff at US Open – and her honesty about failure, pressure, awkwardness off it are all facets of a personality that sets her apart. And this is what makes her the kind of person that brands want to associate with.
With or without live tennis, overtaking Serena Williams in the Forbes list is a telling indication of her place in the sport’s hierarchy. And adding to the voices of players like Williams and Gauff to back social equality is an indication of her fierce personality. Together, it makes Naomi Osaka one compelling personality who is going to be an important player for the sport.
(Clarification: The article originally said Osaka was No 20 on the Forbes top 100 list for 2020. She is 29th, in fact. This has now been updated.)