Love All: Naomi Osaka Pushes Sponsors to Acknowledge Mental Health in Legal Contracts
By: Taylor Henderson* Posted 10/03/2021
Tennis superstar Naomi Osaka took the sporting world by storm after winning her first grand slam in 2018. Osaka’s win against Serena Williams was the first of many wins and the first of many negative reactions that the tennis champion would receive. Born in Osaka, Japan, and raised in the United States, Osaka grew up in a diverse and multi-racial household. Her passion for tennis started thanks to her father. He dedicated his career to coaching the girls while her mother worked full-time to support the family. The sacrifices that her parents made, specifically those by her mother, pushed Osaka to do well in the sport to secure sponsorships. After beating Serena Williams in 2018, Osaka won the Grand Slam four times and partnered with Nike and Sweetgreen. Currently, she is considered the world’s highest-paid female athlete, according to Forbes. However, Osaka has faced challenges this summer due to anxiety and depression. This summer, she withdrew from the French Open and Wimbledon due to personal reasons.
Legal Implications of Withdrawing from the Tournaments
The International Chamber of Commerce defines a sponsorship as “any commercial agreement by which a sponsor, for the mutual benefit of the sponsor and a sponsored party, contractually provides financing or other support in order to establish an association between the sponsor’s image, brands or products and a sponsorship property in return for the rights to promote this association and/ or for the granting of certain agreed direct or indirect benefits.” When companies consider which athletes to sponsor, they analyze the athletes’ brands and whether their “personal story” resonates with the company’s mission. The athlete’s brand is composed of “extraordinariness, attraction, extreme popularity and fame and reputation, maybe even a kind of a genius.” Ultimately, companies partner with athletes to sell their products because of factors such as athletes’ credibility and trustworthy nature.
In 2020, Naomi Osaka made $37.4 million from competitions and sponsorships. In addition to her other partnerships, she maintains relationships with MasterCard, AirBnB, and Tag Heuer. A sports business professor at the University of Southern California’s business school stated to Forbes: “Osaka is a relatively fresh face with a great back story. Combine that with being youthful and bicultural, two attributes that help her resonate with younger, global audiences, and the result is the emergence of a global sports marketing icon.”
On top of her exciting background, an essential aspect of Osaka’s popularity is her ability to play tennis. Her athletic prowess and her likelihood of winning tournaments have made her the perfect athlete for sponsorships. However, her recent withdrawals from tournaments potentially puts her at risk of breaching her sponsorship contracts or limiting her bargaining power.
Moving forward, Osaka may not be able to demand as much money because her tennis prowess is what originally attracted the sponsors. Athletic apparel brands like Nike partner with athletes like Osaka because they want their consumers to see her playing tennis while wearing their apparel. There are examples before Osaka of sponsors altering payment plans based on a player’s performance. For example, in 2019, Allyson Felix exposed Nike for wanting to pay her “70 percent less” after her pregnancy. She wanted “Nike to contractually guarantee that [she] wouldn’t be punished if [she] didn’t perform at [her] best in the months surrounding childbirth.” However, the negotiations did not go well, and she eventually partnered with someone else. Eventually, Nike changed their policy, but it took the company until 2019 to adjust, revealing the difficulties that arise when athletes are not always competing.
Future of Osaka’s Sponsorships
Despite the legal complications that may arise from her withdrawals, Naomi Osaka has highlighted the importance of companies considering athletes’ mental health while negotiating and forming contracts. Athletes feel a large amount of pressure to secure these sponsorships in order to provide for themselves, their families, and their coaches. For example, Osaka has hinted that her goal in life is to support her parents, which is easier to do income from sponsorships. The increased pressure athletes feel to maintain their sponsorships can have a profound impact on their mental health.
The 2020 Olympics illustrated the pressure athletes have been feeling to win while also being isolated from their friends and family. Companies providing sponsorships are uniquely positioned to stand by their athletes when they experience mental health challenges. These companies can show via their continued support that it is important to take care of both physical and mental health. Ultimately, Osaka has embodied this philosophy by withdrawing from the competitions to focus on her wellbeing.
*Staff Writer, Jeffrey S. Moorad Sports Law Journal, J.D. Candidate, May 2023, Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law
See Jeremy Hayes, 16 Jaw-Dropping Achievements by 23-Year-Old Tennis Star Naomi Osaka, Buzzfeed (Mar. 15, 2021), https://www.buzzfeed.com/jeremyhayes/naomi-osaka-greatest-moments (providing summary of background information on Naomi Osaka).
 See Elena Nicolaou, Naomi Osaka Is out of the Olympics Tennis Tournament After a Surprise Upset, Oprah Daily (July 23, 2021), https://www.oprahdaily.com/entertainment/a36955434/who-is-naomi-osaka/ (describing Naomi Osaka’s biographical information and how her interest in tennis developed).
 See id. (“Her father, Leonard Francois, is from Haiti and her mother, Tamaki Osaka, is from Japan.”).
 See id. (“In 1999, Francois sat down for one life-changing night of television. He watched Venus and Serena Williams play at the French Open—and got an idea.”).
 See id. (“He watched instructional DVDs to teach himself how to coach and played for hours himself so that he could impart knowledge on his daughters.”).
 See id. (“Growing up, all I was thinking was I want my mom to be happy and stop working. She would work overtime and sleep in her car. That was my whole point of playing tennis.”).
 See Mae Anderson & Anne D’Innocenzio, Sponsors Hail Naomi Osaka’s ‘Courage’ on Mental Health, Associated Press (June 3, 2021), https://apnews.com/article/meghan-markle-naomi-osaka-osaka-french-open-tennis-ff9a4ed6166c3845efc14e3e6152804a (discussing Osaka’s sponsors’ support after her withdraw from tournaments).
 See id. (“. . . earning $37 million in 2020 from blue-chip sponsors such as Tag Heuer, AirBnB, and Louis Vuitton in addition to Mastercard and Nike.”).
 See World No. 2 Naomi Osaka Withdraws from Wimbledon to Take ‘Personal Time with Friends and Family’, ESPN (June 17, 2021), https://www.espn.com/tennis/story/_/id/31653392/world-no-2-naomi-osaka-withdraws-wimbledon-take-personal-friends-family (detailing Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal from Wimbledon).
 See Christopher Clarey & Ben Rothenberg, Naomi Osaka Withdraws From Wimbledon but Will Play in Tokyo Olympics, N.Y. Times (Aug. 2021), https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/17/sports/tennis/naomi-osaka-withdraws-wimbledon-olympics.html (discussing Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal from Wimbledon).
 Tone Jagodic & Zlatko Matesa, Basic Elements of a Sponsorship Contract in Sport, 55 Zagreb Sch. of Econ. and Mgmt. 275, 278 (2018) (“Following the ICC International Code on Sponsorship, the definition of a sponsorship agreement ‘is any commercial agreement by which a sponsor, for the mutual benefit of the sponsor and a sponsored party, contractually provides financing or other support in order to establish an association between the sponsor's image, brands or products and a sponsorship property in return for the rights to promote this association and/or for the granting of certain agreed direct or indirect benefits.’”).
 Leigh Augustine-Schlossinger, Legal Considerations for Sponsorship Contracts of Olympic Athletes, 10 Jeffrey S. Moorad Sports L.J. 281, 290 (2003) (“The sponsor generally wants to become a partner with the athlete, to share the same philosophy and work ethic of the athlete, and to become part of the athlete's success story.”).
 Jagodic, supra note 11, at 282 (“The sponsorship property is materialized in different shapes and formations. Its specialty is a specific distinction which gives it another character, much different from other similar values. This particularity involves a touch of a class, extraordinariness, attraction, extreme popularity and fame and reputation, maybe even a kind of a genius.”).
 See id. at 278 (“Companies believe that society is more likely to purchase a certain product if an athlete says it is appropriate or beneficial. A product or a brand may be weak, but an athlete's reputation gives it credibility.”).
 See Kurt Badenhausen, Naomi Osaka Is the Highest-Paid Female Athlete Ever, Topping Serena Williams, Forbes (May 22, 2020), https://www.forbes.com/sites/kurtbadenhausen/2020/05/22/naomi-osaka-is-the-highest-paid-female-athlete-ever-topping-serena-williams/?sh=76f365c81fd3 (listing amount Naomi Osaka made from her sponsorships).
 See Kurt Badenhausen, Business Is Booming for Tennis Ace Naomi Osaka, on Track To Be the Highest-Paid Female Athlete, Forbes (Aug. 23, 2019), https://www.forbes.com/sites/kurtbadenhausen/2019/08/23/business-is-booming-for-tennis-ace-naomi-osaka/?sh=7ecda1934904 ( highlighting Naomi Osaka’s journey to becoming highest-paid female athlete); see also Anderson, supra note 7 (listing Naomi Osaka’s sponsors as of June 3, 2021).
 See Badenhausen, supra note 15 (boasting about Naomi Osaka’s accomplishments in sports industry).
 See id. (“Osaka made history with the Aussie win as the first singles player from Asia, male or female, to reach the top spot in the rankings.”).
 See id. (“Osaka, who was born in Japan to a Japanese mother and a Haitian-American father, checks all the boxes for marketers. She’s young, accomplished and multicultural, with a soaring social media following.”).
 See ESPN, supra note 9 (discussing sponsorships that Naomi Osaka has due to her talents as one of world’s greatest tennis players).
 See Augustine-Schlossinger, supra note 12 at 290-91 (detailing experience of author’s client who became injured and needed to frame story to ensure sponsors saw continuing value in relationship).
See Sapna Maheshwari, Nike Is Suing a Star U.S. Runner to Swear Its Brand for the Olympics, Buzzfeed News (June 21, 2016), https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/sapna/a-star-us-runner-is-crowdsourcing-money-to-fight-a-nike-laws (highlighting Nike’s lawsuit against former Olympian for not wearing its brand).
 See Sapna Maheshwari, Why Elite Female Athletes Are Turning Away from Major Sponsors, N.Y. Times (Aug. 8, 2021), https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/30/business/female-athletes-sponsorship-apparel.html (“The smaller company [Athleta] was interested in supporting Ms. Felix’s career, and said it would not penalize her for losing races or choosing to have more children.”).
 See Allyson Felix, Allyson Felix: My Own Nike Pregnancy Story, N.Y. Times (May 22, 2019), https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/22/opinion/allyson-felix-pregnancy-nike.html (exposing Nike’s former policy to pay pregnant athletes less due to pregnancy).
 See id. (“I asked Nike to contractually guarantee that I wouldn’t be punished if I didn’t perform at my best in the months surrounding childbirth. I wanted to set a new standard.”).
 See id. (“Nike declined.”).
 See id. (“Following this report, after broad public outcry and a congressional inquiry, Nike announced a new maternity policy for all sponsored athletes on Aug. 12.”).
 See Louise Radnofsky & Rachel Bachman, Naomi Osaka Took a Mental-Health Break. Could the Law Allow Other Athletes to Follow?, Wall St. J., (June 10, 2021), https://www.wsj.com/articles/naomi-osaka-mental-health-law-casey-martin-golf-cart-pga-11623285387 (discussing the legal ramifications for dropping out of the French Open).
 See Maheshwari, supra note 23 (analyzing reasons why female athletes are declining sponsorships with major companies).
 See Elena Nicolaou, Naomi Osaka Is out of the Olympics Tennis Tournament After a Surprise Upset, Oprah Daily (July 23, 2021), https://www.oprahdaily.com/entertainment/a36955434/who-is-naomi-osaka/ (“Growing up, all I was thinking was I want my mom to be happy and stop working.”).
 See Jenna Fryer, ‘OK not to be OK’: Mental Health Takes Top Role at Olympics, Associated Press (July 28, 2021), https://apnews.com/article/2020-tokyo-olympics-swimming-gymnastics-sports-mental-health-0766e3e512f877254b11b1cf99710473 (focusing on mental health challenges that athletes had at 2021 Olympics such as Sha’Carri Richardson, track star and Liz Cambage, an international women’s basketball player.
 See Simone Biles Sponsors Praise Her for Putting Her Mental Health First, Nat’l Pub. Radio (July 29, 2021), https://www.npr.org/sections/tokyo-olympics-live-updates/2021/07/29/1022411449/simone-biles-olympic-sponsors-praise-her-for-putting-mental-health-first (describing how gymnast Simone Biles’s sponsors stuck by her as she went through her mental health challenges).
 See id. (“[Failing to support athletes] would not only draw the ire of many consumers who staunchly support Biles, but also future athletes contemplating marketing relationships with any brands deemed tone deaf to the circumstances involved.”).
 See id. (“Being the best also means knowing how to take care of yourself. We are inspired by her leadership today and are behind her every step of the way.").
 See Matthew Futterman, Why Does Playing Tennis Make So Many Pros Miserable?, N.Y. Times (Sept. 12, 2021), https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/04/sports/tennis/us-open-naomi-osaka.html (“I think I’m going to take a break from playing for a while.”).