Naomi Osaka’s record $60 million income proves she’s perfect athlete for corporate sponsors to push their phony woke agendas
Naomi Osaka's decision to withdraw from the French Open makes her the perfect vehicle for her vast array of sponsors to signal their support for 'woke' social issues, but their stance is little more than a cynical marketing ploy.
In another time Osaka opting out of the tournament at Roland-Garros would cause considerable consternation in the boardrooms of her numerous sponsors. Brand executives would have called emergency meetings, fearful that their investment in the athlete wasn't being returned by having their logos neatly displayed on television broadcasts throughout the course of the championship.
But that was then. Today, and in stark contrast to the advertising and sponsorship economy of yesteryear, social issues (for want of a better, more all-encompassing term) have become central to the public perception of many sports in the past 12 months or more.Also on rt.com Novak Djokovic praises Osaka as ‘brave’ and ‘bold’ for quitting French Open – but still says interviews are ‘part of the sport’
In the football world, every Premier League game in this past season was preceded by 22 players and a referee dropping to one knee before kickoff as a means to highlight perceived racial inequality in the weeks and months which followed the murder of George Floyd.
Similar scenes have been witnessed in most major sports, from the NBA to NASCAR – and with wildly different reactions from various sets of fans, with some noting these types of protests as being a necessary aspect of social change and others railing against them as little more than virtue-signaling wokeness.
But in today's sporting landscape things are a little bit different. If social issues were lowly-ranked on any given's brand's list of priorities when associating themselves with an athlete a few years ago, today it is a chief consideration and affords the same type of brands who might have sordid histories of sweatshops and cheap labor a clean slate with which to preach equality and social justice.
In Osaka's case, her withdrawal from the French Open came after she announced her intention to skip press conferences throughout the course of the tournament after complaining of the negative impact that media events were having on her mental health.
Osaka, though, is one of the sport's biggest stars – and predictably tournament organizers were furious at her decision and announced intentions to fine the 23-year-old $15,000 for each media event she skipped. She soon pulled out of Roland-Garros altogether; a resolution to the bickering which neither side would have wanted.
She has history, too. A year ago the Japanese-Haitian/American player pulled out of the Western & Southern Open in protest at the shooting of Jacob Blake and had also worn facemasks displaying the names of black victims of racist violence during the US Open.
This is the type of outspoken soapboxing that might have sent sponsors scampering for cover in recent years (as initially happened with Colin Kaepernick) but in today's society, it has proven to be a useful tool for her lengthy list of sponsors to use Osaka as their own mouthpiece.
And it certainly hasn't hurt the four-time Grand Slam winner's bank account.
It was confirmed Friday by Forbes that Osaka made $60 million ($55 million of that coming from endorsements) in the past 12 months, putting her far out in front as the best-paid female athlete in the world and smashing her own record from last year which stood at $37 million.
Her earnings indicate that Osaka is a legitimate, bona-fide sports superstar. She ranks 12th overall in Forbes' list of the best paid athletes, far ahead of the likes of Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal.
Nike, who also latched themselves on to Colin Kaepernick when he was ostracized from the NFL after he popularized the 'take a knee' protests, issued a statement in support of Osaka following her French Open exit: "Our thoughts are with Naomi. We support her and recognize her courage in sharing her own mental health experience."
Similar words were issued by GoDaddy, Hyperice, Levi’s, Nissan, Nissin Foods and TAG Heuer to name but a few.
Osaka, though, has been the target of vitriol in the days since she announced her intentions to skip the French Open but nothing to the point which will have as of yet concerned her many sponsors.
"I don’t think there’s a downside for her. I don’t think there will be any kind of brand damage," marketing consultant Joe Favorito told Forbes.
"Where she comes out of this personally as opposed to professionally will hopefully be a good story that sponsors will want to be a part of."
Osaka indicated in her statement in which she confirmed her French Open pullout that she was to "take some time away from the court now," something may lead to some of her sponsors issuing a frustrated exhale given that her status in the Tokyo Olympics – where she was predicted to be one of the faces of the event – now in doubt.
But the list of financial backers who have hitched themselves to Osaka's wagon know that they can't be seen to back her decision to step away on mental health grounds while also bemoaning the lack of bang for their sponsorship buck, at least publicly.Also on rt.com Why did fragile Naomi Osaka even go to the French Open if she was battling mental demons?
In effect, their endorsement of Naomi Osaka now falls within very specific parameters: she will be backed regardless of whether or not she actually competes in the tournaments her sponsors had presumed she would, and any move in the opposite direction could likely lead to a wave of vilification and suggestions that they aren't supporting Osaka's socially conscious agenda.
Which, to be clear, is her absolute right. But one suspects that as soon as Osaka starts to represent a distraction from a sponsor's ability to sell shoes (or watches, or cars etc.), she might well be jettisoned to make way for a new, more manageable mouthpiece.
Until that day comes though, some of the world's biggest brands will remain only too happy to promote themselves off the back of Osaka's outspokenness.
By John Balfe