The saga of Naomi Osaka – How social media is changing sports economics

Naomi Osaka’s decision to withdraw from the French Open drew support from many fellow athletes. It also prompted backlash, unsurprisingly, from the elders and former athletes who argued that Osaka has an obligation to serve the sport that had given her so much.

In 2000, the highest paid female athlete was Martina Hingis (highest paid woman in sports almost always comes from tennis). She did not win any Grand Slam that year but won nine other tournaments with a total prize money of about US$3.5 million. Her total earnings that year was US$11 million. So, tennis prize money only made up about 30 per cent of her income that year.

In 2010, Maria Sharapova made US$30 million, making her the highest paid female athlete that year. Only two per cent of her income that year came from playing in tournaments.

Sharapova was the highest-paid woman athlete between 2005 and 2016. During that period, where she won five Grand Slams, Sharapova was never the biggest tournament prize winner on the tour.

Last year, Osaka broke Sharapova’s record for highest income earned by a female athlete, raking in US$37.4 million. Only about US$3.5 million of it came from prize money.

The Sharapova era defined a time when athletes’ income made outside the sports arena outpaced the income from competing in tournaments.

Something else has also happened since Sharapova first became the highest-paid woman in sports. Social media, especially Instagram, enabled more and more athletes to promote themselves outside traditional advertising.

Fans of luxury watches may follow Tag Heuer or Rolex on social media. But there are infinitely more people who follow Naomi Osaka’s, Lewis Hamilton’s and LeBron James’ accounts. The product attention Naomi Osaka can generate by say, posting a picture of herself eating ice cream while wearing a Tag Heuer on Instagram, cannot be matched by any campaign done by the watch company itself.

One can argue that without the platform of tournaments and the prestige of Grand Slams, most of the endorsement opportunities for tennis players may not materialise. But the real question that needs to be asked is, who benefits the most from obligations outside the tennis courts?

It is definitely not the players, since they now have their platforms to communicate with fans, where they can control the conversations.

Post-match press conferences are rarely interesting. The modern athlete, be it in football, tennis or Formula 1, are all media trained to give safe answers. It will only get additional interest (clicks) if there is controversy. But what player wants to be in that situation if they can avoid it?

Then we have the institutions – tournaments and tennis federations – who have to sell products. The press conference is part of the tournament product, and according to some, needs to be conformed to at all costs.

But, it can be argued that people will watch Osaka or Nadal regardless if there is a press conference or not. And surely, the longer someone with legions of followers like Osaka remains in contention, the more fans – hardcore or casual – will watch the tournament.

Players at the top of their game no longer need to rely on tournaments or federations for their income. With the power of social media, more than ever, the income-generating power in elite sports is decidedly in the hands of the individual athlete, rather than institutions.

Sponsors have overwhelmingly supported Osaka through the ordeal. We have seen similar support for athletes such as LeBron James and Lewis Hamilton during the Black Lives Matter protests. Nike launched a campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick in 2018 and still registered its highest ever profit in 2019.

Athletes showing activism or vocalising personal opinion is no longer a commercial problem for sponsors.

It would be interesting to see how this develops. Naomi Osaka is not the only one, and there will be many more. Already, we see in Euro2020 how Cristiano Ronaldo and Paul Pogba emboldened to remove sponsored drink brands which ran against their personal beliefs from their press conferences.

Athletes may have a moral obligation to promote their sports and more equality, especially in top-heavy income sports such as tennis.

But, sports institutions could take a page out of the sponsors’ advertising book by rethinking athlete engagement and sponsor revenue strategy.

What institutions can’t do is treat this shift in income-generating power as a control issue they have to nip in the bud. It is a struggle they will never win.

This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Twentytwo13.