Life on the court has been a grind for Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams over the last six months. Injuries, shocking losses and skipped tournaments have limited the pair to only nine on-court WTA match wins combined since February, when Osaka captured the Australian Open after defeating Williams in the semifinal. And yet, their marketing might remains at historic levels.
Osaka ($55.2 million) and Williams ($35.5 million) headline the world’s highest-paid female athletes, with more than 90% of their totals earned off the court from endorsement partners. The drop-off after the tennis stars is massive, as third-ranked Simone Biles earned just $6 million, according to Sportico’s estimates.
Osaka’s record tally ranks No. 15 among all athletes—male or female—while Williams finished No. 44 for earnings during the 12 months through May 2021. Roger Federer, LeBron James and Tiger Woods are the only active athletes to earn more than Osaka from endorsements during the past year.
“Osaka’s brand, while becoming complicated to many, remains compelling, especially in the current sports marketing era, one seemingly underscored by activism and advocacy as much as achievement and personality,” said David Carter, a principal of Sports Business Group, an industry consultant. “While she will continue to be a sports marketing force, some will tune her out, while others will turn her up.”
Tennis has always been the surest fire way for female athletes to make bank. The prize money is comparable to the men, and endemic sponsors like Nike and Adidas splash millions on the biggest stars to help goose their apparel sales. But tennis earnings are down across the sport outside of Osaka and Williams. COVID-19 dented revenue and prize money at many events, while Wimbledon, with its expected $55 million purse, was canceled altogether in 2020. The fewer events also triggered apparel sponsors to slash payments anywhere from 20-40% for most players. The result: Only 30% of the current 10 highest-paid female athletes make their living with a racket, down from 90% last year and 100% in 2019.
The tennis downturn opened up room for a trio of South Korean golfers to make the cut, led by Jin Young Ko at $5.3 million, including $2.1 million in prize money. Total LPGA prize money is $73.3 million this year, up 77% in the past 10 years.
The LPGA Korean golf boom was launched by Se-ri Pak, who was the only Korean player on the Tour when she joined full-time in 1998. She lit the Tour on fire during her first decade, and by 2008, there were 45 Korean LPGA members.
“Korea continues to be a very strong market for both LPGA Tour players and for women’s golf in general, and lately, we have seen a steady increase in sponsorship support coming from large U.S. and global companies looking to take advantage of the LPGA’s global reach,” said veteran agent JS Kang, who heads up Epoch Sports Group and represents some of the top LPGA players; Kang would not disclose any contractual details on his clients.
Soccer stars Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe, as well as skier Mikaela Shiffrin, all made at least $3.5 million from endorsements and cracked the top 10, per Sportico estimates. That may not be NBA star sneaker money, but it is on par with what the biggest stars in baseball and hockey earn off the field and ice. Brands like Mastercard are looking to balance their sport sponsorships with investments in female athletes. Osaka’s agent Stuart Duguid told Sportico in May that being a woman definitely made her more attractive to sponsors. “There’s a big push to invest in women in sports,” he said.
Companies are certainly spending more on individual, team and league sponsorships for female athletes, but salaries remain a fraction of those in men’s leagues because the revenues are not in the same stratosphere. The NBA’s TV deal is roughly 100 times greater than the WNBA’s, which is reflected in player salaries.
Osaka and Williams cracked the top 50 highest-paid athletes, but dig a bit deeper, and the reality is that they would be the only two in the top 1,000 highest-paid athletes. Biles made $6 million, and there were 865 athletes in the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL and Premier League combined that made at least that in salary alone, according to Spotrac data. Factoring in endorsements, along with all of the other male athletes around the globe in other sports, would push Biles well outside the top 1,000 overall.
Take Ada Hegerberg. The Norwegian striker captured the first Ballon d'Or Féminin in 2018, awarded to the best soccer player on the planet. Her sponsors—Nike, Mastercard, Hublot and DAZN—push her off-field earnings into seven figures. Hegerberg plays in the top women’s league in the world, in France, and kicks off her season this week for Olympique Lyon. Her new three-year contract is worth roughly $600,000 a year, the most for any female footballer, but a blip compared to the men, with Lionel Messi, Neymar and Cristiano Ronaldo all earning at least $70 million in salary and bonuses last season.
Sportico’s estimates include all earnings from prize money, salaries, bonuses, endorsements, licensing, royalties, memorabilia, appearances, media and book deals between June 1, 2020, and May 31, 2021. We did not factor in investment income or deduct for taxes or agent fees. The top 10 earned a combined $127 million, including $14 million in prize money and salaries.
Highest-Paid Female Athletes
1. Naomi Osaka: $55.2 million
Prize money: $5.2 million; Endorsements: $50 million
Speaking out on social issues used to be a death knell for athlete endorsements, but Osaka’s activism over the past year has elevated her brand. She has two dozen endorsement partners, led by Nike, which pays her roughly $10 million a year.
2. Serena Williams: $35.5 million
Prize money: $1.5 million; Endorsements: $34 million
With Subway restaurants becoming her latest endorsement partner, Williams remains a marketing juggernaut even as she approaches her 40th birthday next month, despite her last Grand Slam title taking place four-and-a-half years ago. Her venture fund, Serena Ventures, has made more than 50 investments.
3. Simone Biles: $6 million
Her 19 World Championship gold medals are more than twice as many as any other female gymnast ever and made her a marketing star with 11 current endorsement partners, including Athleta, Visa, United Airlines, Uber Eats and Mondelez’s Oreo brand. She is staging her own post-Olympic Gold Over America Tour, covering 35 cities during the fall.
4. Jin Young Ko: $5.6 million
Prize money: $2.1 million; Endorsements: $3.5 million
Ko won the prize money title in 2019 and 2020, with last year’s tally earned through only four events. A pair of major wins in 2019 and the No. 1 world ranking helped secure major endorsement deals with LG Electronics and Manila-based Solaire Resort & Casino last year.
5. Sei Young Kim: $4.7 million
Prize money: $1.7 million; Endorsements: $3 million
The 28-year-old was named LPGA Player of the Year in 2020, and she holds the Tour’s all-time 72-hole event scoring record at 31-under. She signed a multi-year deal with Korean skincare brand Mediheal this year, promoting the brand on her apparel and hat during events.
6. Garbiñe Muguruza: $4.5 million
Prize money: $1 million; Endorsements: $3.5 million
The Spanish-Venezuelan tennis star recently added deals with Jaguar and Nivea to a deep endorsement portfolio that also includes Adidas, Babolat, Beats, Caser insurance and Maui Jim. She completed a three-month business class at Harvard University this year.
7. Alex Morgan: $4.3 million
Salary: $250,000; Endorsements: $4 million
The USWNT and Orlando Pride veteran has racked up the biggest endorsement roster in women’s soccer, with Nike, Coca-Cola, Luna, AT&T, Secret, Volkswagen and more. This year, she launched a new media and commerce company for women called Togethxr, which last week announced plans for a documentary on WNBA star Breanna Stewart.
8. Megan Rapinoe: $4.1 million
Salary: $250,000; Endorsements: $3.8 million
The pink-haired captain of the USWNT is highly sought-after in the marketplace as a corporate speaker and has carved out a hybrid model of traditional endorsements that often have a consulting component because she has a finger on the pulse of people who are disenfranchised. Major partnerships include Nike, BodyArmor, Subway, Victoria’s Secret, Schmidt's deodorant, Cliff Bar and Symetra insurance.
9. Mikaela Shiffrin: $3.9 million
Prize money: $411,000; Endorsements: $3.5 million
Shiffrin has dominated the snow since she turned pro at age 15 in 2011. Her 69 World Cup wins, including a record 17 in 2019, already rank second all-time behind Lindsey Vonn. Ski racing is massively popular in Europe, and her dominance has attracted more than a dozen personal sponsors, like Adidas, Atomic, Barilla, Bose, Comcast, Land Rover, Oakley and Visa.
10. Inbee Park: $3.7 million
Prize money: $1.7 million; Endorsements: $2 million
Park has built a Hall of Fame resume in 15 years as a pro, with seven major titles, an Olympic gold medal and four stints as the No. 1 player in the world. Her $17.7 million in career prize money ranks fourth all-time.