The U.S. Open is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, with the winners of the men’s and women’s tennis events set to each receive a record $3.8 million in prize money for their titles.
But more than prize money is at stake in the Saturday afternoon women’s final between Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka. Williams is chasing history, trying to tie Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles. Osaka is the first Japanese women to reach a Grand Slam final. The underdog Osaka is not shying away from the challenge, saying after her semifinal win over Madison Keys, “This is going to sound really bad, but I was just thinking, ‘I really want to play Serena.’”
Williams is the world’s highest-paid female athlete, but she might be looking at her successor to the earnings crown across the net on Saturday. Osaka’s strong 2018 tennis season, including a title at Indian Wells, has raised her marketing profile. A U.S. Open win would send her to another stratosphere for endorsements.
The 20-year-old Osaka has the potential to be the face of global tennis for the next decade, with Williams turning 37 this month. But even if Osaka does not live up to those lofty standards, her position as Japan’s top female athlete could push her off-court earnings up ten-fold over the next couple of years from $1.5 million to more than $15 million.
“Osaka has incredible long-term potential because of her age, multi-culturally appeal and on-the-court talent,” says David Schwab, who created Octagon’s brand celebrity strategy business. “Her sense of humor is endearing and she has the personal ability to decide how much of a marketer she would like to be.”
Osaka’s current endorsements include Adidas, Yonex, Nissin and Wowow. She inked a multiyear deal with watch brand Citizen ahead of the U.S. Open. Her low six-figures Adidas deal expires at the end of 2018. Perfect timing. A U.S. Open win could push her asking price to $5 million annually, including bonuses. Sloane Stephens parlayed her 2017 U.S. Open win into a blockbuster, multimillion deal with Nike, after her Under Armor pact expired shortly after the Open title.
Tennis is by far the most lucrative sport for female athletes. Eight of the ten highest-paid women are tennis players (racing’s Danica Patrick and badminton’s PV Sindhu are the exceptions). Williams leads the way for the third straight year with $18.1 million in the 12 months ending June 1. Williams earned only $62,000 in prize money after a break for the birth of her daughter Alexis, but Serena’s endorsement portfolio is tops among female athletes. Maria Sharapova was the top-earning female athlete for the 11 years before Williams took over in 2016.
Major success stories from Asian-born tennis players have been rare, but the few exceptions show the power of the Chinese and Japanese markets from a sponsorship standpoint.
China’s Li Na became a global sensation in 2011 when she won the French Open, the first Chinese player to win a major tournament. Li, who like Osana is represented by IMG, signed seven multimillion deals shortly after her Roland Garros win. Her annual off-court earnings soared from roughly $2 million to close to $20 million. She continues to bank more than $10 million annually in retirement.
Kei Nishikori has made it past the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam only twice (the U.S. Open in 2014 and 2018), but his standing as the top Japanese player has been a gold mine. Nishikori has more than a dozen endorsements that generate $30 million annually, including bonuses and appearances. Only Roger Federer earns more among tennis players.
Part of Nishikori’s allure is the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Nishikori is being positioned as the face of the Games by many of his sponsors, who are also Olympic sponsors. Osaka, who moved to the U.S. when she was three but still plays under the Japanese flag, will have the same opportunity for sponsors, further boosting her appeal and price tag. “She has the ability to win the first-ever medal for a Japanese women’s tennis player. That could be THE game changer,” says Schwab.
Osaka’s U.S. Open run is already paying off for her sponsors. The share price of her racket maker, Yonex, jumped more than 10% on the Tokyo Stock Exchange with her semifinal win.
Osaka’s big payday is also coming soon.