When it comes to winning advertisers, few athletes have the appeal of tennis aces Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams.
Osaka, 24, has more than 20 corporate partners, earning $58 million before taxes and agent fees over the past 12 months from brands including Nike, Mastercard and Louis Vuitton. It’s the fourth best off-court total among the world’s top athletes, behind only Roger Federer, LeBron James and Tiger Woods, and ahead of names like Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Tom Brady. Williams, 40, has more than a dozen endorsement deals herself, bringing her off-court earning to $45 million, tenth-best in the world.
These wins, along with prize money won on the pitch, put Osaka in 19th place in Forbes’ 2022 ranking of the 50 highest paid athletes in the world, with a total of 59.2 million dollars in the last 12 months. Williams, with $45.3 million, is ranked 31st.
This is no small victory in the world of women‘s sports. The third-highest-paid female athlete, Williams’ sister Venus, was more than $20 million short of hitting the $37.6 million threshold. The last female athlete other than Osaka and Williams to crack the top 50 was Maria Sharapova in 2015, with $29.7 million. In 2017, 2018 and 2019, no women were selected.
That’s partly because, with women’s sports lacking the media exposure that men’s sports get, brands are generally less inclined to direct their marketing investments towards female athletes. Only two women besides Osaka and Williams, for example, earned at least $10 million off the court last year, according to Forbes’ estimates: Venus Williams ($11 million) and gymnast Simone Biles ($10 million). This year’s ranking of the 50 highest-paid athletes, meanwhile, includes 26 male athletes who earn at least that much, and that doesn’t include at least a handful of others – like golfer Jordan Spieth and tennis star Novak Djokovic – who easily beat that off-screen threshold but below the overall threshold.
The greatest impact of the lack of media exposure, however, comes on the ground. Without massive broadcast deals, women’s team sports simply don’t have the revenue to support the hit salaries and bonuses that exist on the men’s side.
Take basketball. The NBA collects an average of $2.67 billion a year from ESPN and Turner Sports for broadcast rights to its games, more than 100 times the amount the WNBA has. would have obtained from its only TV partner in recent years, ESPN. With that kind of deficit, the WNBA’s maximum base salaries reached about $220,000 last year. By contrast, Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry had the NBA’s highest salary this season at $45.8 million, and the league’s minimum wage for full-year contracts was over $900,000.
There have been efforts to close the gap, in basketball and elsewhere. The WNBA’s 2020 collective bargaining agreement nearly doubled the maximum salary and the league brought in new sponsors as its ratings grew. The Premier Hockey Federation struck a new media deal, and the National Women’s Soccer League, which is getting a boost from new owners and expansion teams, signed a collective bargaining agreement in February that raised its minimum wage by nearly 60%. In the same month, the United States women’s national soccer team reached an equal pay agreement with US Soccer, the sport’s national governing body.
Meanwhile, the US Women’s Open is increasing its golf purse to $10 million this year from $5.5 million. Tennis’s four Grand Slam tournaments have paid equal prize money to men and women since 2007, and rising stars Emma Raducanu and Coco Gauff are landing valuable sponsorship deals while still teenagers.
But while the pay gap is narrower in individual sports, disparities exist there too. In golf, 2021 Women’s PGA Championship winner Nelly Korda took home $675,000, less than a third of the $2.16 million Phil Mickelson won at the Men’s PGA Championship. Outside of Grand Slams, it’s often a similar story in tennis. Ashleigh Barty won $255,220 for winning last year’s Western & Southern Open away from Cincinnati, a US Open warm-up event; the men’s champion, Alexander Zverev, collected $654,815.
All of this suggests that Osaka and Williams, with their powerful appeal to sponsors, will continue to stand out.
It’s no coincidence that they both play tennis, where their clothes are valuable real estate for advertisers looking to get their logos on TV. It also helps that Osaka, who set a record for a female athlete by earning $60 million on last year’s athlete list, was born in Japan, a country whose traders are willing to pay for stars. Sport. (Just look at Shohei Ohtani, who earns around $20 million off the field, an unheard of mark for a baseball player.) In March, Osaka added a massive endorsement deal with cryptocurrency exchange FTX which was accompanied by a participation in the capital. This month, she announced that she was leaving IMG to start her own sports agency, Evolve, and continue to grow her business.
“For those outside of the tennis world, Osaka is a relatively new face with a great story,” said USC sports business professor David Carter. Forbes in 2020. “Combine that with being young and bicultural, two attributes that help him resonate with younger global audiences, and the result is the emergence of a global sports marketing icon. .”
Williams turned professional in 1995 and has been in the global spotlight since winning the 1999 US Open aged 17. In addition to lucrative partnerships with brands like Nike, Subway and Gucci, she has a first TV deal with Amazon Studios that includes a docuseries about her, and she has found success as a venture capitalist. Her company, Serena Ventures, announced in March that it had raised an inaugural fund of $111 million.
It’s far too early to say who will reach Osaka and Williams’ next level, or when, but it’s a safe bet what sport she’ll come out of: Every year since Forbes began tracking data in 1990, the highest paid female athlete is a tennis player.