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The four-time Grand Slam champion, entrepreneur, and activist has just launched her own sports agency, at the age of 24

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On 12 May, Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka posted a video on her social media handles with the caption, “Hey kid, you’ve come a long way and even though there’s been some bumps on the road I hope you know you’re doing amazing.”

The video is a compilation of the various answers the 24-year-old has given to the media when asked what her goals and career aspirations are. In one of the clips, from maybe three-four years ago, she is asked what she would have been had she not become a tennis player.

Osaka went from marine biologist to physiotherapist to finally saying, “I just like sports, so maybe like an agent in the end. I don’t know.”

With Osaka, you can never say never. She might just quit tennis tomorrow and take up a marine biology course. But she has already become one of the things she mentioned she’d like to be.

Naomi Osaka: Athlete. Activist. Entrepreneur. Agent.

At just 24 years of age, Naomi Osaka’s hat is already overflowing with feathers. She’s a four-time Grand Slam champion, the world’s highest-paid female sportsperson, and, despite a squeaky voice, one of the most outspoken athlete activists in the world.

On 11 May, a day before Osaka released that video, she added another bullet point to an already distinguished CV. She’s now also an agent.

Sports business publication Sportico reported that Osaka is leaving talent management company IMG after six years to launch her own sports agency, along with her longtime agent Stuart Duguid. The new agency, called Evolve, is something that Osaka and Duguid have been discussing since the Tokyo Olympics last year.

Quote
I’ve spent my career doing things my way, even when people told me that it wasn’t what was expected or traditional. Evolve is the natural next step in my journey as both an athlete and businesswoman, as well as a way to continue being myself and doing things my way.

I’m excited to start this with my business partner Stuart and our plan is to use the same approach we took in building my businesses authentically and strategically as a vision for this company. I strongly believe in the power athletes have to use our platforms to drive meaningful business.
Naomi Osaka in an email to Sportico

Osaka isn’t the first sportsperson to go down this route. Athletes like Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Rory McIlroy, and Jack Nicklaus also have their own agencies. But Osaka is the first woman to start one.

It’s not her first time as a trailblazer, whether on the field or off of it. In 2018, she became the first Japanese woman to win a Grand Slam, after beating Serena Williams in what was a rather eventful final at the US Open.

She has gone on to win three more majors since, including the 2020 US Open, which was the first time the world saw the activist side of her. She wore different face masks in each of the seven rounds of the tournament. Each mask had the name of a Black person who had died due to racial violence and police brutality.

I distinctly remember her interview after winning the final, when she was asked what message she was trying to send. Osaka replied, “Well, what was the message that you got? I feel like the point is to make people start talking.” This was a 22-year-old woman.

Last year, Osaka became a champion for mental health after admitting that she had suffered “long bouts of depression” since that 2018 US Open final. Ahead of the 2021 French Open, Osaka shocked the tennis world when she announced that she would not speak to the press during the tournament. Because “people have no regard for athletes’ mental health” at press conferences, and players are often asked questions that “bring doubt into our minds”.

Osaka skipped the press conference following her first-round match at Roland Garros, and was fined US$15,000 for it. She was also threatened with expulsion and future sanctions at Grand Slams if she continued with her boycott. Players are contractually obligated to attend press conferences after matches. Osaka withdrew from the tournament hours later.

Then, after a shocking third-round exit at the US Open later that year, Osaka announced in an emotional press conference that she planned to take an indefinite break from tennis.

Osaka returned to the circuit at the beginning of this year, but has hardly played any tennis because of injuries. As a result, her ranking plummeted from No 2 in the world at the beginning of 2021 to as low as 85th earlier this year. After reaching the final of the Miami Open in April, she’s back up to 38th.

Her activism and breaks from tennis, however, haven’t affected her brand. If anything, her brand has only grown over the last couple of years. Osaka earned US$59.2 million in the 12 months ended 1 May 2022, with nearly all of it—US$58 million—coming from endorsements, according to Forbes. She’s the highest-earning female athlete in the world, and 19th overall.

Osaka has endorsement deals with the likes of Nike, Panasonic, Louis Vuitton, and Mastercard. She has equity in companies such as Autograph, FTX, Hyperice, Sweetgreen, Modern Health, and StatusPro. She also founded Kinlò, a company that makes skincare products for people with melanated or darker skin tones, and has her own swimwear and sleepwear lines. In fact, she launched Kinlò just days after announcing she was taking an indefinite break from tennis.

Today, Osaka is not just a sporting icon, but also a role model in terms of entrepreneurism and activism. And this is why, after her contract with IMG expired late last year, talks regarding a renewal were reportedly unfruitful. According to Sportico, Osaka was seeking more flexibility with her partnerships, and IMG was unwilling to accommodate that request.

Osaka had signed up with IMG in 2016 when she was only 18 and the youngest player in the world’s top 50. Back then, she needed the talent management agency to navigate a new world that was just opening up to her. IMG managed all her off-court interests, including sponsor procurement, contract negotiation, public relations, and brand strategy, according to SportsPro.

Six years later, it’s a different story. Osaka has proved on multiple occasions that she is a strong, mature athlete. Whether it’s in terms of her tennis, entrepreneurism, or activism. Which is why, when talks with IMG reached an impasse, she and her agent Duguid figured, why not just do it ourselves and avoid paying commissions to a third party. And perhaps more importantly, avoid any uncomfortable conversations with an external agency regarding her activism.

“We were discussing the business models of some of her mentors like Kobe [Bryant] and LeBron [James],” Duguid told Reuters. “We thought – why has no transcendent female athlete done that yet.” Duguid added that Evolve will be athlete-driven and “focused on big-picture brand-building rather than quick checks with a commission attached”.

And while the agency would consider taking on a client or two, Osaka will be the focus. “The core of Evolve is building Naomi’s business from $50 million a year to $150 million a year,” Duguid told Sportico.

Deepthi Bopaiah, chief executive of the GoSports Foundation, a Bengaluru-based non-profit that works in the athlete development space, feels that it’s a bold move that could benefit other athletes in the future.

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With talent management agencies, you get the entire backend. They have years of experience, they know what to quote, and what not to do. Which is why if Naomi had started this agency on her own without her longtime agent, that would have surprised me a lot. But clearly, she’s a businessperson and understands that she needs the right people on her team.

I think they are going to make a significant amount of money and maybe make very different decisions also in terms of whatever she wants to get involved in. There may be one or two ‘oops’ moments where we feel, okay, are you really going to go down this route? But I think she’s a smart, intelligent girl. And a really cool role model for all women across the world, not just youngsters.
Deepthi Bopaiah, CEO, GoSports Foundation

The advantage of agencies like Evolve, whenever it does decide to take on other clients, is that athletes will be working with someone who has actually been in their shoes.

“As an athlete, you tend to understand things better,” said Bopaiah. “Otherwise you’re looking at it from a purely commercial standpoint. If you don’t build a relationship with the athlete as an agency, then you’re just being transactional. It’s a matter of time before the athlete walks out, because they’ll feel like they’re just one deal for you.

“I’ve heard of agency people who don’t even know what match is happening, where their athletes are playing… but the minute their athlete wins something, they want to get a deal for them. All athletes want is someone who believes in them and wants them to excel,” she added.

Now, perhaps you’re wondering how things work in India. Well, India actually has a long history of player-agents. Cricket legend Sunil Gavaskar co-founded India’s first sports management company, called Professional Management Group (PMG), in 1985.

However, the business eventually landed him in trouble with the Indian cricket board in 2015, when it asked him to choose between commentary and player management. PMG managed three cricketers—Shikhar Dhawan, Rishabh Pant, and Sarfraz Khan—at the time.

Gavaskar isn’t the only Indian sportsperson who found themselves in a conflict-of-interest soup. Cricketers MS Dhoni and Virat Kohli have also faced similar accusations for their association with agencies Rhiti Sports and Cornerstone, respectively. Indian football captain Sunil Chhetri’s sister Bandana Chhetri also runs Fair Play Sports, an agency that manages many of her brother’s teammates.

In non-team sports, where there is a lesser chance of such conflicts, tennis doubles legend Mahesh Bhupathi comes to mind. He set up Globosport, a sports and entertainment agency, in 2002. “But I don’t think people have spoken about running such businesses and becoming an entrepreneur enough to inspire someone to go down that route,” said Bopaiah.

This is slowly changing, with non-profits like GoSports and Olympic Gold Quest (OGQ) educating their athletes about wealth management and investing.

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We educate them on how to manage their money. When you get award money, don’t just go and blow it all away on a new phone, a car, and a house. That’s typically what they do, and the money gets over in three months. So, we teach them how to invest money, where to invest it, and just give them enough information to make informed choices.

We make them realise that their playing careers are short-lived, so they need to think about what they will do after they retire. There’s so much competition, so you have to figure out your plan B. Find something you’ll enjoy doing even later in life. And you have enough [money] to get into your passions.
Deepthi Bopaiah, CEO, GoSports Foundation

This is especially important with athletes from sports other than cricket, who don’t get as much sponsor attention as their cricketing counterparts. Cricket accounted for 88% of India’s ~US$1.3 billion sports industry last year, according to a report by media agency GroupM. This includes spending on sponsorship, endorsements, and media.

And among the non-cricket sports, another sub-category of athletes that needs attention in terms of financial literacy is women.

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Generally, what I have seen, especially with badminton players, and mostly girls, is that we hardly talk about money. Not just in sport, but overall, the financial literacy of women in India is pretty low. Because of the patriarchy that exists in the society, it's mostly the male figures in the family who look after the money.

When I was an athlete, I didn’t understand money very well: how to invest it, where to invest it, and make those kinds of decisions. I’m trying to change that now. I’m trying to understand money a little better and make more independent decisions. But this is one of the major challenges.
Aditi Mutatkar, former India badminton player

Mutatkar is currently the program head for athlete and women initiatives at Bengaluru-based non-profit Simply Sport Foundation, which works in grassroots sport. She also pointed out that it’s only in the last 10-15 years that India has started producing athletes at the same level as someone like Osaka. Olympic champions and medallists like Neeraj Chopra, PV Sindhu, and Saina Nehwal.

“So, the whole idea of managing an athlete is pretty new to the country in itself,” said Mutatkar. “Agencies are coming up now, but I think it’ll take some time for athletes to develop that level of professional outlook towards sport.

“In tennis, every athlete has their own team that travels with them. If I compare that with badminton, Indian athletes generally travel as a team and share coaches, physios, and sports scientists. That professional setting that you see in the west isn’t quite there yet in India. But things are slowly changing,” she added.

So, will India produce a Naomi Osaka anytime soon? It seems unlikely, considering the aforementioned challenges. In addition, Indian athletes aren’t as outspoken in terms of activism, especially when it comes to political subjects. However, Bopaiah pointed out that there are quite a few Indian athletes who have spoken openly on matters such as mental health.

Like shuttler HS Prannoy, who opened up about the “nightmare” he endured while being confined in a bio-bubble during international tournaments. Or wrestler Vinesh Phogat, who revealed she was diagnosed with depression in 2019. “I think there are a lot of Indian athletes doing it in their own small ways, but they don’t have that kind of reach yet,” said Bopaiah. “And the ones that have the reach have not really been vocal.”

The one who’s got the best chance to break out on her own is probably Sindhu. The 26-year-old shuttler is the seventh-highest-earning female athlete in the world, a two-time Olympic medallist, and a former world champion. But you can hardly call Sindhu an athlete activist. She’s still nowhere near as influential as Osaka.

But maybe someday.

Quick singles

⚽️🇺🇸👨🤝👩💰 The United States’ men’s and women’s football teams have reached a landmark agreement with their federation that will guarantee they will receive the same pay when competing in international matches and competitions. The agreement also includes a first-of-its-kind provision through which the teams will pool the unequal prize money from the FIFA World Cup tournaments and share it equally among the members of both teams. [The New York Times]

⚽️🇮🇳🧑‍⚖️ After the Indian cricket board a few years ago, it’s now the Indian football federation’s turn to be governed by a Supreme Court-appointed committee of administrators. India’s Supreme Court has virtually revoked the powers of the All India Football Federation (AIFF). This was after the court heard a plea alleging, among other things, that Praful Patel’s term as AIFF president had expired in December 2020. Worryingly, this could result in a FIFA ban and India losing the hosting rights for the 2022 under-17 women’s World Cup, scheduled in October. [Hindustan Times]

🏏🇮🇳⚔️ The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), headed by former cricketer Sourav Ganguly, has awarded the title sponsorship rights for the 2022 Women’s T20 Challenge to fantasy sports platform My11Circle “after successfully participating in the bidding process”. The BCCI’s press release did not mention the fact that Ganguly is a brand ambassador for My11Circle. And neither did it reveal the identity of other bidders and the bid amounts. [IPLT20.com]

That’s all from this edition of Moneyball. Who do you think has the potential to be India’s Naomi Osaka? Let me know by writing to [email protected]

Take care.

Best,
Jaideep

This newsletter has been discontinued. But you can read The Stack which includes our newsletters around cleantech, fintech, personal finance and e-commerce in India!