Naomi Osaka - Game. Set. (post) Match! Are we improving?

By Tom Wilcher, Trainee Solicitor, 27th Aug

The sporting world looked on as Naomi Osaka made her eagerly anticipated return to tennis at the Olympics this summer. What have we learned from her time away from the sport about the pressures on professional athletes, particularly those that are the most commercially sought-after stars in sport?

In 2020, Naomi Osaka was the highest-earning female athlete in the world. Forbes estimated that her annual earnings amounted to $37 million. Since then, Naomi has added a number of further sponsors to her growing roster. Big brands such as Nike, Louis Vuitton, MasterCard, Panasonic and Nissan are examples of Naomi’s large portfolio. After winning her first two Grand Slam titles, Naomi’s deal with Adidas came up for renewal, Nike stepped in and beat Adidas and other competitors for her signature. The deal reportedly earns her around $8.5 million a year. In a recent partnership that shows just how big Naomi’s brand is, children’s toy company Mattel also recently released a Naomi Osaka Barbie doll, honouring the beloved tennis champion. This limited collaboration sold out as soon as they were made available.

The marketability and power of Naomi’s image rights makes her the most commercially powerful female in sport at the moment as well one of the top individuals in sport in general. Panasonic’s recent partnership announcement with her succinctly explains the reason “her values and perspectives on society deeply resonate with its own management philosophy”. Big brands clearly attribute large value to their association with marketable sports stars with a large following.

Naomi’s struggle with the spotlight and the rules surrounding post-match conferences have been well documented over the last few months. Naomi withdrew from the French Open earlier in the year after being fined $20,000 for not attending a post-match press conference citing a long battle with depression and social anxiety which is exacerbated by appearing in media conferences. Naomi then took some time away from tennis before returning to the court at the Olympics in July. The Olympics also saw gymnast Simone Biles withdraw from a number of events citing mental health struggles. England cricket all-rounder Ben Stokes has also recently announced an indefinite break from all forms of cricket to tend to his mental health.

Commercial value has a direct correlation with how much the player is in the spotlight. As a result of superstars like Naomi, Simone and Ben’s commercial value, tournaments and sport governing bodies secure significant investment through broadcasting and sponsorship. Consequently, the value to these investors is being able to provide coverage and content of stars like Naomi. However, this demand for engagement is what is disengaging Naomi with the sport. The French Open shares a rule book with other Grand Slam events like Wimbledon which prohibits players from skipping the post-match media conference unless injured or physically unable to appear. Crucially this rule does not consider mental health issues as an injury. The terms of participation in the tournament are written in a contract between participant and organiser. These terms require attendance at media conferences. By not adhering to these terms the participant could be in breach of contract. On top of this Naomi will also have her own sponsorship obligations to adhere to. A key aspect of sport in modern day is undoubtedly to ensure the deliverance of immediate media access to ensure the sporting event is promoted as quickly and as well as possible. At face value it is mutually beneficial. However, perhaps athletes such as Naomi who contest with an overwhelming demand for their time need further protection and a more bespoke approach, something which is in the interests of both player, tournament providers and the media.

Looking to the future, fellow athletes and the general public have come out in support of Naomi’s period of time away as well as Simone’s bravery at the Olympics. Tournament organisers have stated they will look to do better in the future to avoid a repeat of the situation. After all a recurrence of the Naomi situation is not ideal to any party. Both those with a commercial interest in Naomi and fans of tennis momentarily lost a start player who generates significant viewing figures and media interest. Likewise, Naomi lost opportunities to compete and raise her profile further. We need to make adjustments so that we can see stars like Naomi better supported and more comfortable with their media obligations. With Naomi having been almost reduced to tears on her first media engagement since returning to the spotlight and Ben Stokes still being on indefinite leave, the indications are that we are still not doing enough.

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