Naomi Osaka catapulted into the global spotlight in 2018 with her memorable U.S. Open win over Serena Williams and backed it up four months later with a second grand slam in Australia—the first singles majors ever for a Japanese player. She was hailed for the breakthrough, but the tennis ace was just getting warmed up.
Osaka’s last 12 months have constituted one of the most memorable years ever by an athlete—male or female—across any sport. She added two more slams to her resume but received even more attention for raising awareness around police shootings with her actions, when she pulled out of an event in Cincinnati and then wore masks in New York highlighting the names of seven black victims of police shootings.
Athletes speaking out used to be a death sentence from a marketing standpoint, but the times they are a-changin’, as Dylan sung. Everyone wants to be in the Naomi Osaka business. The result: a female athlete record $55.2 million in earnings over the last 12 months, with $5.2 million from prize money and an estimated $50 million off the court. Osaka lands at No. 15 in Sportico’s ranking of the world’s 100 highest-paid athletes.
“It used to be that you open your mouth too loudly and nobody wants to touch you,” said Bob Dorfman, a sports marketing expert at Baker Street Advertising. “Now, everybody talks about brands taking a stand. Osaka stands up for what she believes in and comes across as very real.”
Osaka has partnered with two dozen brands that range from HR software (Workday) to watches (Tag Heuer). Her marketing appeal covers denim (Levi’s) to high fashion (Louis Vuitton). Osaka has deals worth eight figures annually (Nike) and ones with heavy equity components (Hyperice, BodyArmor). This month, fast-casual restaurant chain Sweetgreen revealed Osaka as its first athlete ambassador—she is also an investor in the company.
Her multi-nationality—born to a Japanese mother and Haitian-American father—has been a driving factor in companies flocking to Osaka, with a half-dozen sponsors based in Japan. The Tokyo Olympics, originally scheduled for 2020 and now set to kick off July 23, added another layer to her marketing mojo. ANA, Google and Nissin are both Osaka partners and official Olympic supporters.
Her $50 million haul off the court is topped only by a trio of active athletes when it comes to endorsements: Roger Federer, LeBron James and Tiger Woods. Osaka’s tally matches global soccer icon Cristiano Ronaldo, who counts 289 million Instagram followers. Conor McGregor headed Sportico’s athletes ranking, but the bulk of his $208 million in earnings was through the sale of his whiskey brand, Proper No. Twelve, and not traditional endorsements.
“Being a woman has made her even more attractive for sponsors,” said Stuart Duguid, the IMG agent steering Osaka’s marketing career. “There’s a big push to invest in women in sports.”
Osaka wants to invest in women, too. She bought a stake in the NWSL’s North Carolina Courage and has encouraged her endorsement partners to invest in the nine-year-old soccer league. One of them, global financial services giant Mastercard, signed a multi-year sponsorship just ahead of the 2021 season start to be an official sponsor of the league.
The 23-year-old is herself a budding entrepreneur, joining Los Angeles-based Frankies Bikinis to launch her first swimwear collection, which debuted this month. Osaka also started her own skincare line, Kinlò, with an emphasis on skin protection for people of color.
Tennis remains the surest way for female athletes to make seven figures, thanks to the rich prize money in the sport that dwarfs playing salaries of other women sports. On the marketing side, it benefits from being year-round and international, with a country club fan base willing to spend their high disposable incomes on financial services, apparel, equipment and watches.
But there is a massive drop-off after the star-studded duo of Osaka and Serena Williams, who made a combined $90 million over the last 12 months. Next up are several tennis players in the $4 million to $6 million range.
As Michael Jordan set the standard for athlete marketing throughout the 1980s and 1990s, he famously shied away from taking any political stances during his playing days. Those days are over, as Osaka has proven. She will now get the MJ treatment with her own Netflix documentary. The three-part series coming in July bills itself as an intimate look at one of the “most gifted and complex athletes of her generation.”
(Note: The story was updated to correct the spelling of Stuart Duguid’s last name.)