Naomi Osaka used a powerful forehand and a matching serve to win the US Open against Serena Williams. Off the court — on the marketing front — experts say she could have the same potential as Williams, and maybe more.
“It’s very, very rare to find a Japanese-born female athlete who appeals to an international audience,” said Bob Dorfman, a sports marketing expert and creative director at Baker Street Advertising in San Francisco.
Williams topped the Forbes list of the highest-earning female athletes this year at US$18 million, almost all endorsements.
Experts say Osaka could be the right woman in the right sport at the right time with the draw to overtake her.
“What’s more, tennis, especially women’s tennis, is a sport that lends itself to a broad variety of sponsors: sporting goods, health and beauty, fashion, lifestyle, travel, personal care, you name it,” Dorfman said. “And the sport’s international following brings with it a large, loyal and affluent fanbase. All the more reason why so many companies are lining up to sign her up.”
The big question is: Can she keep this up?
Much has happened very quickly for her, former tennis star Chris Evert said.
“You know, it’s going to be life-changing for her and very, very important,” Evert said. “From what I see, she is very humble and from what I see, her parents are very humble people. Hopefully they won’t go Hollywood on us.”
Osaka’s multicultural background — Japan-born, but raised in the US by a Haitian-American father and a Japanese mother — adds to her wide appeal, endearing her to fans in Japan and elsewhere.
Her disarming charm, off and on the court, including how she handled the turmoil surrounding her win over Williams, is also winning people over.
“She appeals to the young and old, men and women, everyone,” said Shigeru Tanaka, advertising manager at Citizen, her sponsor since August.
Tokyo-based Citizen Watch Co’s ￥80,000 (US$703) Naomi Osaka watch is selling out at stores in Japan, thanks to the exposure it got on her wrist at the US Open.
Citizen was quick to take advantage of her Grand Slam win, taking out a one-third page ad in the Yomiuri extra edition report of her win.
Companies would not say how much her contracts are worth, but they tend to be written so that if she keeps winning, her earnings will keep going up. If one company will not pay, another will just snatch her up, marketing experts said.
Although Japanese baseball players like Ichiro and Shohei Ohtani are superstars, that sport does not have the global appeal of tennis. There are Olympians, but their appeal tends to come and go every four years.
Japan is “just starving for a star,” Evert said.
Osaka has been wearing various Citizen watches in matches and in photo ops, and has told reporters that the first watch she got from her mom was a Citizen. She has also said that her father drove a Nissan while she was growing up — another in a growing line of sponsors.
Besides Citizen, Osaka has deals with instant noodle-maker Nissin Foods Group, Japanese racket maker Yonex Co and Adidas.
Nissan Motor Co in September signed Osaka as its three-year “brand ambassador.” The deal was in the works for a while, but the timing could not have been better, coming right after the US Open.
The Yokohama-based automaker is mulling a “Naomi Osaka model” car. She is also getting keys to a silver GT-R sports car.
Investing in Osaka enhances brand image for the long-term, said Masao Tsutsumi, general manager in charge of Osaka-related marketing at Nissan.
He said her transformation from “every girl” to superstar parallels the automaker’s commitment to technological innovation.
“She also is such a nice person while being utterly professional,” he added.
Yonex has been supplying rackets to Osaka since she was 10, after receiving a letter from her mother. The Osaka effect is evident in the growing popularity of Yonex rackets among younger Americans, the company said.
Appearing before Yonex employees in Tokyo, Osaka drew affectionate laughter by insisting on addressing the crowd in Japanese, although she managed only a few words, including onaji, or “the same,” said Nori Shimojo, the company’s official in charge of tennis player service.
At just 21, Osaka has plenty of time to learn the language of her birthplace if she wants to.
As for her sponsorship windfall, she is shrugging it all off.
“I wouldn’t really know, because I have never been in this territory,” she said last month during the WTA Finals. “For me, I just focus on my matches, and, I mean, like I’m a tennis player, so I just play tennis.”
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