The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

Twenty-year-old tennis star Naomi Osaka became the face of Japanese sporting prowess when she defeated Serena Williams to win the United States Tennis Open Championship on September 9, bringing Japan its first Grand Slam title. And, on September 13, she became the face of Nissan Motor Company, Ltd. as the Japanese carmaker sought to cash in on her sudden fame by naming her its global ambassador.

Nissan’s deal—of which the company declined to give financial details—is likely to be followed by many more. Companies are increasingly turning to sponsorship of sports, entertainment, and the arts as a means of promoting their products. Last year, global corporate spending on sponsorships was $62.7 billion. Osaka, suddenly one of the hottest properties in tennis, will have global brands fighting hard for a share in the powerful cachet of her youthful, modern, mixed-race image.

But for Japanese companies, in particular, her win was “perfect timing,” according to a manager at a major Japanese advertisement agency. Coming just before the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, Osaka’s rise as “a Japanese player competing on the world stage” will be the ideal platform for Japanese businesses operating in the global market, the manager added.

“It was very good . . . for us,” an official of Citizen Watch Co., Ltd. told the Nikkei Asian Review. The Japanese company named Osaka its first global ambassador last month and will, in the coming days, promote the worldwide launch of the watch she wore during the US Open final. “We will focus on foreign markets such as North America and Asia,” the official said. “Osaka evolves every day. She fits our brand concept very well.”

Some of Osaka’s existing sponsors have already seen a payoff from her triumph. Inquiries about subscriptions at pay-television company Wowow Inc.—which not only sponsors Osaka but has broadcast rights in Japan for all Grand Slams—jumped 500 percent on the day Osaka won the semifinal, an official told Nikkei.

Following the win, Yonex Co., Ltd., her equipment supplier since 2008, saw its shares rise 11 percent over the previous week’s close. The company will increase production of the Ezone 98 racket, which Osaka used in the final, and has decided to expand sales of tennis gear as part of a new management plan.

Nissin Food Products Co., Ltd., the Japanese instant noodle maker which struck a deal with Osaka in 2016, enjoyed a more modest 3-percent rise. But a company spokesman told Nikkei he expected the increased brand exposure to lead to higher sales.

Osaka’s value as a brand has suddenly skyrocketed. “Her opportunities for media exposure will increase,” said the advertising executive.

That could mean existing sponsors will need to significantly increase their payments or risk losing the exposure they get from a rising global star.

Rivals are already circling—especially in Japan. Adidas’s contract for her footwear expires at the end of the year. Motoi Oyama, chief executive officer of Japanese sportswear brand Asics, said it was still “too soon after her victory” to decide whether his company would fight Adidas for the contract. But he put the price at “over ¥100 million for the shoes.” Asics already sponsors 14-time Grand Slam winner Novak Djokovic.

The Nissin spokesman said the company’s sponsorship might have to be reviewed in light of the US Open victory. The company would decide whether to continue the deal after examining the merits and potential increase in fees, he said.

Executives in the sponsorship industry estimate that Osaka could now demand three or more times her current price per contract. It has been reported that she currently earns some $1.5 million a year from her various sponsors—still a long way from the $18 million earned by her heroine and role model, Williams. But that was before the Nissan deal.

The fact that she has chosen to play for Japan may make a difference to the price she can command, given the desire of Japanese companies to find a local hero to support as the Olympic Games approach. According to Forbes’ 2018 List Of The World’s 100 Highest-Paid Athletes, Kei Nishikori, Japan’s star male player who has yet to win a Grand Slam, earned $33 million from endorsements between June 2017 and June 2018. That’s less than fellow tennis star Roger Federer’s $65 million, but more than big names such as Rafael Nadal ($27 million) and this year’s male US Open winner Novak Djokovic ($22 million).

“Japanese businesses right now are sponsoring Nishikori to make him a symbol for 2020,” said the manager. “They may start throwing similar sums at Naomi Osaka as well down the road.”

Osaka’s mixed-race heritage—which has sparked debate in Japan about whether she is truly Japanese—is unlikely to deter local companies from wanting to profit from her success.

Her mother comes from the northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido. Her father is Haitian. Osaka was born in Japan but moved to New York at the age of three and speaks Japanese haltingly. In a 2016 USA Today interview, Osaka noted: “When I go to Japan, people are confused. From my name, they don’t expect to see a black girl.”

But the fact that “she is half-Haitian or has dark skin and can’t speak Japanese too well,” is of no concern, the ad manager said. Instead, she could be of great value to the country’s sponsors whose business is selling merchandise directed at women. So far, there are far fewer women than men among the Japanese medal contenders for 2020.

The hope in some communities is that this may change, in part thanks to Osaka’s success.

Tokyo-based tennis school VIP TOP Group has 14,000 club members, including 3,725 junior members under the age of 15. Club membership jumped by 1,000 in the year after Nishikori’s success in 2014. A club official said that, since the retirement of Japan’s last female tennis star, Kimiko Date, in 1996, young girls with ambitions to play tennis have lacked a local role model. “Nishikori’s success brought us many new male players. We hope Osaka will be a new icon who can encourage young girls to start playing tennis.”

Yet others who develop competitive players suggest that Osaka’s background and US training make her one of a kind. “It will probably be impossible to raise and train a second Naomi Osaka in Japan,” said the head of a private tennis club.

© 2018 Nikkei Inc. Nikkei Asian Review is published by Nikkei Inc. All rights reserved.

Since the retirement of Japan’s last female tennis star, Kimiko Date, in 1996, young girls with ambitions to play tennis have lacked a local role model.