In a marketer’s ideal world, tennis star Naomi Osaka would walk out onto the green grass of Wimbledon in stylishly modern Nike tennis whites, Beats by Dre Flex Wireless earphones clearly visible in her ears, with the pop of the neon-green band of the Tag Heuer smartwatch that she wore on the cover of Vogue Japan drawing your eye to her wrist. Then she’d sit down and maybe give herself a quick massage with her Hyperice Hypervolt before warming up for her match. It would be a perfect—and perfectly natural—product placement moment for all the world to see at the planet’s most renowned tennis tournament.
But that script isn’t happening. Not this year.
On June 17, Osaka announced that she was dropping out of Wimbledon, which started June 28. She had decided to extend her Grand Slam pause beyond the French Open, from which she withdrew on May 31, citing the need for a break to attend to her own mental health.
The timing of that French Open announcement, coming after a wave of performative press outrage over her previous decision to skip media availability, was seemingly a bit awkward for Osaka’s brand partners, which include not only the ones name-checked above but also Levi’s and Sweetgreen. In decades past, this situation would be a nightmare scenario for brand sponsors. Marketers would have invested millions of dollars in creating ad campaigns, events, and more revolving around their athlete endorser participating on the biggest stage of their sport. The question brands would have been asking themselves right now are When will she be playing in front of millions of people again? says Basia Wojcik, vice president of sports at the Marketing Arm, an agency that specializes in pairing brands and athletes.
For much of the last century, brands have been enlisting athletes to endorse their products. From Chesterfields to chocolate milk, fast food to footwear, most of it has been predicated on the notion that if these more-than humans, physical specimens, and champions of sport use a certain product, it must be good enough for you and me. The more an athlete won, the more famous they became, and hence the more valuable their endorsement was to marketers. This was also largely a time when what we knew about pro athletes was what we saw on the court or field. Maybe a magazine profile here and there, but really, the athlete’s image was primarily forged within the sport itself.
The post-Kaepernick era of sports marketing
Times, however, have changed, and given how Osaka has become a cultural figure beyond the tennis court, her speaking out about an important and personal issue not only isn’t a commercial calamity but presents her brand sponsors with a unique opportunity. Now, as Wojcik says, the conversation is more about, How much time does she need? How long should we just back off? Then it’s about working with her managers and agents to ask what it looks like to come out of this quiet period, and what’s the best way to work together to do that.
From the moment Osaka announced her withdrawal from the French Open, her brand sponsors were all publicly supportive.
“We don’t see this as a problem,” says Nathaniel Ru, Sweetgreen cofounder and chief brand officer. Just the week before Osaka’s exit from Roland Garros, the company had made a big splash by announcing her as its first-ever national athlete ambassador and youngest investor. Osaka has her own signature bowl—warm quinoa, baby spinach, cilantro, tomato, tortilla chips, raw carrots, goat cheese, blackened chicken, lime-cilantro jalapeño vinaigrette, avocado, and Sweetgreen hot sauce. And on May 26, 100% of sales from every Naomi Osaka Bowl went toward supporting AAPI-led organizations dedicated to increasing food access in Asian American and Pacific Islander communities.
“We think about mental health as just health in general,” Ru says, “so we were thinking about how we could support her. To be honest, we just gave her space.”
Chris Thorne, Beats by Dre’s chief marketing officer, says that his brand’s approach to Osaka right now is that of support but he also references LeBron James’s More than an Athlete platform, putting her in a similar category as James or former professional quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick played his last NFL game in 2017, and yet remains one of the most famous—and popular—athletes in America. In that same vein, Osaka represents more than a potential Grand Slam win.
“Kaepernick isn’t playing sports right now, but he’s very active in a number of things we’re working on,” Thorne says. “It’s not about being on the field. LeBron works with Beats a lot, and you won’t see him in a basketball uniform. It’s because they stand for so much more. When we did the ‘You Love Me’ campaign and the Beats Flex campaign, where Naomi braided ‘Silence is violence’ into her hair, that’s not going through her agent trying to get a creative concept through. We’re working directly with her, and it’s a collaboration of her ideas.”
Creating space—and opportunity
Giving Osaka support and time appears to be the consensus among all of her major sponsors. “Our thoughts are with Naomi,” Nike said in a statement. “We support her and recognize her courage in sharing her own mental health experience.” Watchmaker Tag Heuer’s statement read, “Naomi is going through difficult times and we truly hope to see her back soon. She is a great champion and we are convinced that she will come out of this period stronger, be it professionally or personally.” Like Sweetgreen, Tag Heuer is a recent partner, signing Osaka in January.
But Osaka’s decision gives brands a chance to create some goodwill PR by supporting the athlete. “It gives brands an opportunity to pivot and tell a different story,” Wojcik says. “You’re not talking about Wimbledon, but you’re still talking about Naomi and an important issue.”
The sport and any athlete’s performance of course remains a vital aspect of their public appeal. But in the social media age, athletes have become three-dimensional human beings with hobbies (what?!), passions (no!), and, yes, social and political views (shocking!) beyond their profession. Increasingly, these other aspects have become as important (or almost) to any given athlete’s popularity and place in culture.
Training and recovery tech brand Hyperice has been working with Osaka since 2019, and CEO Jim Huether says the company originally partnered with her because of her presence and popularity with audiences in both the U.S. and Japan, but also because of the authenticity of her voice in speaking to that audience. Her reasoning for skipping the Grand Slam events, and how she’s articulated and handled that decision, has merely confirmed his commitment.
“Her direction and ability to speak in her own voice has really played out in powerful ways,” Huether says. “How she’s spoken out about BLM is really inspiring. And I think we’re seeing the same thing with mental health. Her voice is resonating even beyond professional sports. It’s amazing.”
Ownership over endorsement
With a more direct connection to their audience and fans through their social media, athletes can turn each post into an image-building moment, their own story told by them. In other words, athletes—no longer solely dependent on major media and marketers to tell us who they are—have taken significant ownership of their personal brands. When it comes to partners, increasingly, these athletes are also moving from hold-the-product-and-smile endorsers to company investors.
Osaka is an investor in both Sweetgreen and Hyperice.
Huether believes that her speaking out the way she has will be seen as a transformative moment that helped a lot of people, and more corporate clients—such companies as Equinox, Best Buy, Nordstrom, and Orangetheory—have reached out to say they love that Hyperice has Osaka as a partner and how courageous she is. “We got a better response from our partners around this than after she won the U.S. Open,” Huether says. “Selecting your ambassadors is very important, because it’s these people, not just their performances, that will be reflecting on your brand. I actually think her move to pull out has been more impactful, for both her brand and ours, than had she played and won.”
Sweetgreen’s Ru says flexibility beyond the pro tennis schedule—and treating Naomi like a multidimensional human, not just a tennis player—was built into their partnership from the start, which makes these last few weeks easy to navigate. “What we tried to do with our marketing campaign is go beyond her as the tennis player everyone knows, and try to go deeper into what she loves to do and what her passions are outside of tennis,” Ru says. “Naomi is big into food, she likes playing video games, she loves meditating, she’s into fashion. We just wanted to make it fun and show the layers behind the tennis player, and it was really fun to do that.”
Unlike any given sports season, pop culture never stops, and marketers are acting accordingly. Says Beats by Dre’s Thorne: “The message of working with Naomi is going to be great in January or June, it doesn’t matter.”