Masao Tsutsumi, general manager in charge of Osaka-related marketing at Nissan Motor Co., stands with a Leaf electric vehicle in front of a giant poster of Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka at the company's showroom in Yokohama. Photo: AP/Yuri Kageyama
tennis

Naomi Osaka headed for big money with Japan, global appeal

13 Comments
By Yuri Kageyama

Naomi Osaka used a powerful forehand and a matching serve to win the U.S. Open against Serena Williams two months ago, soaring as high as No. 4 this season in the WTA tennis rankings.

Off the court — on the marketing front — she has the same potential. 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, California.

Serena Williams topped the Forbes list of the highest-earning female athletes this year at $18 million, almost all endorsements.

Osaka appears to be the right woman in the right sport at the right time with the draw to overtake Williams.

"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 fan base. 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, notes former tennis star Chris Evert.

"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. We don't want that to happen."

Osaka's multicultural background — Japan-born but raised in the U.S. 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 yen Naomi Osaka watch is selling out at stores in Japan, thanks to the exposure it got on her wrist at the U.S. Open.

Citizen was quick to take advantage of her Grand Slam win, taking out a one-third page ad in the Yomiuri newspaper's extra edition report of her win.

Companies won't 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 won't pay, another will just snatch her up, marketing experts say.

Although Japanese baseball players like Ichiro and Shohei Ohtani are superstars, that sport doesn't 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 the first watch she got from her mom was a Citizen. She has also said 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 badminton and tennis racket maker Yonex Co., and athletic-wear and sneaker giant Adidas.

Nissan Motor Co signed Osaka as its three-year "brand ambassador" in September. The deal was in the works for a while, but the timing couldn't have been better, coming right after the U.S. 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 says.

Appearing before Yonex employees in Tokyo, Osaka drew affectionate laughter by insisting on addressing the crowd in Japanese, though she managed only a few words, including "onaji," or "the same," says Nori Shimojo, the company's official in charge of tennis player service.

At just 21, Osaka's got 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 during a recent tournament in Singapore. "For me, I just focus on my matches, and, I mean, like I'm a tennis player, so I just play tennis."

© Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

©2018 GPlusMedia Inc.


13 Comments
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Excellent, she deserves it, Serena Williams billboards and advertisements is quite slim now, given her true persona came out in the big match.

2 ( +9 / -7 )

Good for her but i dislike the way the media is milking her because she is partially Japanese. She lived most her life abroad. Now that she suddenly became famous she is Japanese?

-4 ( +8 / -12 )

Although Japanese baseball players like Ichiro and Shohei Ohtani are superstars, that sport doesn't have the global appeal of tennis. There are Olympians, but their appeal tends to come and go every four years.

As a sports watcher, I don't think Japanese people are fundamentally that bothered about tennis and its "global appeal". Viewing figures for the grand slams will be very low. Only Wimbledon is on domestic tv, and that's just a couple of hours in the graveyard slot after 11pm. Nishikori got to about fourth in the world rankings, but did not become phenomenon-level huge.

Japanese people are fickle and go through many "booms". Osaka may have a long and successful career, but as far as endorsements in Japan are concerned, her current newsworthiness may be more marketable than any further success she goes on to have.

-2 ( +5 / -7 )

Good for her but i dislike the way the media is milking her because she is partially Japanese. She lived most her life abroad. Now that she suddenly became famous she is Japanese?

She was born Japanese, and holds Japanese citizenship, with a Japanese parent.

She didn't suddenly become Japanese, she was always Japanese. Of course the media didn't focus on that though, because until she became big enough to be noticed by the media, they wouldn't have had a clue who she was.

1 ( +8 / -7 )

"For me, I just focus on my matches, and, I mean, like I'm a tennis player, so I just play tennis."

That's the right attitude, don't get overwhelmed by all the media hype, do your thing right, and a great future is waiting.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

enjoy it while you can. Japanese audiences like their heroes to win, otherwise theyll drop you like a hot potato, and youll find your honorary japanese status revoked.

I dont think this added pressure is going to help her at all.

-2 ( +3 / -5 )

They are slow. Her image has been on my desktop background for a long time. She is an inspiration.

-2 ( +0 / -2 )

Interesting that Naomi is now only 2nd behind Serena in sponsor money.

Serena has been playing at world class level for 2 decades and Naomi (I love her) for essentially 2 years.

How can someone attract so much money?

As Evert noted I guess, "Japan is starving for a star."

For me a very important point re Naomi in Japan - the recent world end of year masters in Singapore (where Naomi failed to win a match) attracted almost no attention on the wide media here. I wanted to watch her games on tv but was left to manouevre thru the myriad of internet streams.

This can only suggest that Corporate Japan and fair weather fans love a winner, but easily ignore an otherwise performance.

Outside of the Real Tennis Fans, people just grasp onto an image.

Happens in other sports as well.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

"Osaka's multicultural background — Japan-born but raised in the U.S. by a Haitian-American father and a Japanese mother — adds to her wide appeal, endearing her to fans in Japan and elsewhere."

Ummm... no. The being born in Japan part (something not mentioned much until recently) and her part-Japanese ethnicity is what appeals to Japanese -- when she's winning. There were PLENTY of people more than eager to point out how NOT Japanese she was a few years back when I was saying they should watch out for her. Now that she has won a major competition when their Yamato-blood Nishikori has proven he can't live up to the hype they are bandwagon fans, and some have already dumped her subsequently when she dropped out of other tournaments through injury.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

Ha look at all these sourpuss comments.

“Oh yeah Japanese are so fickle, oh yeah Japanese hated on her till she became a champ”

Firstly YOU are the ones doing the hating. What the media report and what individual people think are not the same thing at all.

Well Im Japanese and I’ll tell you that 80% of all I heard from young and old alike is simply that they love the champ! The whole world loves a winner!

Too bad some folks end up just bein whiners.

-2 ( +2 / -4 )

Naomi Osaka is also now a big deal among her father's Haiti and Caribbean peoples

They even just gave her a big hero's homecoming

"Osaka receives a hero's welcome in Haiti"

http://www.wtatennis.com/news/osaka-receives-heros-welcome-haiti

4 ( +4 / -0 )

Serena Williams billboards and advertisements is quite slim now, given her true persona came out in the big match.

Serena will be fine. She's had these outbursts a few times before - and it didn't affect her marketability

She'll still be the highest paid female athlete and the most marketable

https://www.forbes.com/sites/kurtbadenhausen/2018/08/21/the-highest-paid-female-athletes-2018/

Because business markets like G.O.A.T.s

0 ( +1 / -1 )

"Now that she has won a major competition when their Yamato-blood Nishikori "

Naomi is more Japanese than Ben Johnson was ever Canadian.

Actually Canadians were quick to point out that he was not really Canadian, when he got caught with his hand in the cookie jar!

Ah, and she's got Yamato blood too. As Strangerland has pointed out, she was always Japanese.

With Japanese great-great parents, grandparents, aunties, uncles, sister, cousins, mother and all; and she was even born there.

Notwithstanding her Haitian side, obviously.

-3 ( +0 / -3 )

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