Nike Backs Osaka Amid French Open Withdrawal Firestorm

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Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open tennis tournament on Monday, the day after she was fined $15,000 and threatened with harsher sanctions for skipping her media obligations following her 6-4, 7-6 first-round victory over Patricia Maria Tig.

“I think now the best thing for the tournament, the other players and my well-being is that I withdraw so that everyone can get back to focusing on the tennis going on in Paris,” Osaka wrote in a long statement she posted on Twitter. “I never wanted to be a distraction and I accept that my timing was not ideal and message could have been clearer.”

The withdrawal comes on the heels of Osaka’s pre-tournament decision to not participate in any press conferences, citing their impact on her mental health. Her media blackout and French Open withdrawal set off a firestorm of reactions, both in support and against her choices.

One important backer firmly in her corner: Osaka’s biggest sponsor, Nike, which pays her at least $10 million per year. “Our thoughts are with Naomi,” said Nike in a statement. “We support her and recognize her courage in sharing her own mental health experience.”

Hyperice, which makes a line of recovery and movement products and has been an Osaka partner since 2019 in an equity deal, also issued its support. “Hyperice stands behind Naomi both on and off the court,” said the company in a statement to Sportico.

Osaka ranked No. 15 in Sportico’s recent ranking of the world’s highest-paid athletes. Her $55.2 million included $50 million off the court from sponsors, a record for a female athlete. Only Roger Federer, LeBron James and Tiger Woods earned more over the last 12 months from traditional sponsorships.

“It used to be that you open your mouth too loudly and nobody wants to touch you,” Bob Dorfman, a sports marketing expert at Baker Street Advertising, told Sportico last week. “Now, everybody talks about brands taking a stand. Osaka stands up for what she believes in and comes across as very real.”

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Osaka has been a marketing supernova since she won her first Grand Slam, the 2018 U.S. Open, and her status took another leap in 2020 as she raised awareness around social injustices. Brands flocked to the tennis ace, who is currently ranked second in the world. She has two dozen endorsement partners, adding Google, Louis Vuitton, Sweetgreen, Levi’s and more to her deep roster over the past year.

Nike locked up Osaka in 2019 in a deal that runs through 2025 after a bidding war with Adidas. She hit the open market at the perfect time, as her Adidas contract ran out as she was winning her first two Grand Slams.

She held all the chips in the negotiations and secured a lucrative provision in the deal that allowed her IMG agents to sell patches of other brands on her on-court clothing. The sportswear giant usually requires its roster of tennis endorsers to only display the Nike Swoosh. It did not make the exception for Andre Agassi, John McEnroe, Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova or any of its other tennis clients. The only previous exception: China’s Li Na. Her current patch partners are Workday and Nissin.

In addition to its tennis apparel, Nike just announced its second Osaka collection that features an assortment of hoodies, t-shirts and shorts.

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