The past year and a half has been filled with rewards and gains that have seen Naomi Osaka become one of the most famous and most marketable women in the world.
And yet, in many ways, the most impressive part of his rise came in the midst of difficult development.
“Over the past 18 months, society and therefore businesses have understood that we must advance equality – both racial and gender,” Osaka, four-time Grand Slam tennis champion, told The Star in an exclusive interview. “This results in greater opportunities for women.”
From a brand perspective, high-performance women are becoming increasingly sought-after partners in the market, and Osaka is Exhibit A. With the influence and charisma running through its veins, companies cannot stand. let us sleep on the fact that Osaka and other female stars can have a real impact on the distribution of disposable income.
“I also think in tennis in particular the young stars, including Coco (Gauff) and Bianca (Andreescu), are super cool and great ambassadors for the sport,” Osaka says.
This is an observation that the numbers clearly support. All you have to do is follow the money.
For many years, female tennis players have consistently topped the earning lists of endorsement by women in sport.
Maria Sharapova, the five-time Grand Slam champion who officially retired early last year, has been the highest-paid female athlete in the world for 11 consecutive years, according to Forbes.
Serena Williams, still among the world’s top 10 players at 39, prioritizes creative control and used her personality to launch her own clothing line and sell a documentary series to HBO. Twenty-five years after turning professional, Williams was once again among the top 100 highest paid athletes in the world last year, according to Sportico.
Then there’s Osaka, 23 – successful, young and real. She’s in an ideal location.
Recently, Osaka was crowned the highest-paid female athlete in the world, ranking 15th overall in Sportico standings since a year. That’s even more relevant when you consider that she placed fourth behind only Roger Federer, LeBron James and Tiger Woods for off-court gains.
With around $ 50 million (US) in the past 12 months just for endorsements – a record for women in the sport – it’s easy to think Osaka is making that money by gobbling up every opportunity that comes its way. . The reality is that his collaborations are much more selective.
“For me, it’s about authenticity, otherwise I would never put my name on it,” Osaka says. “We look at the values of the company and if it matches mine. The second question is whether I can be involved in the creation and / or design process. Third, do I use organically or strongly believe in the product? Finally, I like to meet the managers and vibrate with them. “
If we’ve learned anything about Osaka over the past year, it’s that maybe the ambiance control is the most important factor.
Generally seen as shy and reserved, she spoke her truth in power in 2020. As the Black Lives Matter movement rocked North America and called on citizens of the world to open their eyes, Osaka, whose father is Haitian and mother is Japanese, took action.
She reached the semifinals of the Western and Southern Open in Cincinnati last August, following the shooting of Jacob Blake by police in Wisconsin and the protests that followed, including player arrests in the WNBA, the NBA and the MLB. Osaka chose not to play that day as well, saying, “As a black woman, I feel like there are much more important issues at hand that require immediate attention, rather than to watch me play tennis. ”
His words had an immediate impact, with organizers postponing all of the day’s games. Osaka would come back and continue to reach the final.
The following month, before and after each match on her way to winning the US Open, she donned masks bearing the names of victims of police brutality and racial injustice: George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, Philando Castile, Tamir Rice.
Osaka continues to do things on its own terms, whether people agree or not.
Case in point: last week, just days after her interview with the Star, Osaka announced that she would give up all media availability at Roland Garros, stating in part: people who doubt me. . She cited the perceived disregard for athlete mental health during post-game press conferences as a catalyst.
Osaka continues to use its enviable position in the sports zeitgeist to build its brand and avoid the people and business partners it deems to perform well.
“I always try to get to the bottom of (that),” Osaka says of the companies to work with. “That’s why it’s important for me to meet with those responsible, because I think it’s easier to read authenticity that way. But if the authenticity of the cause is very important to me, even if it is not (genuine), I would rather a company push an equality agenda in one form or another than not at all.
The word agenda can have sinister connotations. From a business perspective, success is usually driven by profits and growth. But if public pressure or market trends demand representation and diversity and businesses comply, should consumers care?
According to Suzanne Duncan, founder of experiential marketing agency Integrated Sports Solutions, the answer is not clear.
“It matters and it doesn’t matter. Two things can be true at the same time, ”says Duncan, whose work has involved 10 Olympic Games, 4 FIFA World Cups and the Super Bowl.
“If a moral compass of society says that now is the time to open the doors to women, women of color and minorities and that creates an opportunity, that is fine. Right now you will see a lot of companies announcing frontal diversity in a very bold and strong way. But if it only begins and ends with this entity, this person in that role, then there is no change. “
Many female athletes are making money today, but hurdles remain for those below the superstar level that Osaka and others have reached. Duncan is also the Managing Partner of Femme Gaming, which provides a safe and inclusive environment for female gamers.
“We were approached to partner with this global tournament which was going to be designed to take women to the next level and give a player the opportunity to join a professional team,” says Duncan.
Of the top 500 earners in esports, only one identifies as female, despite reports from growing participation in women.
“They come to us for our influence, our network and our access to space … trying to capitalize on the concept of rising female athletes, and it’s all going well,” she adds.
But in this case, Duncan says the people she was negotiating with were hesitant about her asking price.
“What I really liked was that every player at the table was a man, and they had already given their piece of the pie … We were going to deliver the bigger aspect of the project and we were (offered the smaller) come back, and that’s what I still see happening in space.
Equality, fairness – whatever your setting is still not the default setting behind the scenes.
The WNBA’s orange hoodie movement has led to increased awareness, fandom and audience, but many companies have yet to be convinced – if not forced – to care about women in sport beyond the Osakas. , Williamses, Megan Rapinoes and Sue Birds of the world.
The 2015 Pan Am Games in Toronto provided another vivid example. The Canadian men’s and women’s basketball teams played in the same city for the first time in over a decade, but promotion before the tournament focused on the men.
“By this point, remember, the women had competed in the 2012 Olympics,” says Bailey Williams of the BDA Sports Management Agency, who was then director of communications for Canada Basketball. “You have a few WNBA players on the team. (Yet) there have been tons of requests (for interviews) for men and none for women.
Williams remembers taking drastic measures.
“I had to ask one of our Canadian legends associated with the men’s program if I could basically take their time hostage,” she says. “So he agreed to fulfill the media obligation if the media also agreed to interview the women. This is how we got all the coverage before the games. Even the beatwriters, or the basketball people, didn’t know the women.
It’s a story that is true for anyone who knows women’s sport.
After the Canadians beat the Americans for the gold medal at Pan Am and Kia Nurse rose to fame, becoming a household name and flag bearer at the closing ceremony, Williams said they couldn’t not follow media requests: … it’s not that they hadn’t already proven themselves.
Duncan and Williams are also co-founders of The Standard, a platform that tackles systemic barriers to employing black Canadian women in marketing. Both say they have seen women in sports gain more attention at other times over the years. The challenge remains the same: to support it.
“For me, there is no middle ground,” says Duncan. “You’re completely in (or out) and that’s what female athletes are starting to understand … Once you get yours you can’t fall into the traps of, ‘Well see, we knew. that it changed ‘because it is to buy in the illusion. It maintains the status quo. “
The only path to change is to disrupt the status quo when you have the power.