When Naomi Osaka walked on to court at the US Open in August, the world’s highest-paid female athlete was covered in names: Nike, Yonex, All Nippon Airways, and Nissin, the company that invented the instant noodle and which has supported her from the start of her stratospheric rise to the top of tennis.
So when Mayumi Taguchi, a fan watching an ocean away in Yokohama, saw the words “Breonna Taylor” emblazoned on Ms Osaka’s face mask, she assumed it was just another sponsor — perhaps an exotic foreign fashion label she’d never heard of. When she googled the words, the reality startled her. The name on Ms Osaka’s mask belonged to a black woman killed in her home by police in Louisville, Kentucky: one of the injustices that fuelled the Black Lives Matter movement.
In that instant, and with that deliberately unmissable statement, Ms Osaka propelled herself into a position that none before her have occupied — a superstar athlete capable, at the age of 23, of making a protest reverberate equally powerfully in both east and west. She set out to “spread awareness”, as she put it, of violence against black people on the biggest stage possible, but ended up, say sponsors, sports industry supremos and advertising agencies, doing a great deal more.
It was a pivotal moment, not only for tennis and for Ms Osaka’s international fan base, but for boardrooms and for a multibillion-dollar sports marketing industry which is facing unprecedented pressure to decide how far it should let politics entangle with commercial messaging.
“The balance of influence [for an athlete] has shifted quite dramatically, in every sport and every territory”, says Phil de Picciotto, founder and president of Octagon, a global talent agency.
“The value of an athlete brand is higher than ever. Now athletes are being very careful, as careful as companies are, in choosing [endorsement] partners.”
Athlete activism may not be a new phenomenon in the US, but in recent months there has been a fundamental change in the way that sponsors, leagues and many fans view political statements from stars.
Only four years ago, Colin Kaepernick, a quarterback who took the San Francisco 49ers to the 2013 Super Bowl, was effectively drummed out of the National Football League for leading a series of protests against police violence, which involved kneeling during the playing of the national anthem before every match.
But amid the unrest this year over the police killings of George Floyd in May and Taylor in March and the growing prominence of the BLM movement, sports stars from LeBron James in the National Basketball Association to Marcus Rashford in football’s English Premier League have been much more outspoken in their political activism. And rather than paying a commercial price, in many cases sponsors are rewarding them.
Ms Osaka is such an important figure in this shifting culture because her fame reaches far beyond the US. In Japan, say two Tokyo-based sports agents, the media, sponsors, sports franchises and the country’s foremost advertising group, Dentsu, have tended to like their athletes bland and obedient. But Ms Osaka — the playfully blunt daughter of a Haitian father and a Japanese mother — is doubling down on her potential as an agent of change.
Even before her support for a cause that was, at the time, drawing millions on to American streets, Ms Osaka’s requirement to choose to retain Japanese citizenship when she turned 22 embodied the ambiguity with which Japan views her mixed heritage: a joy when she is winning, but a fundamental challenge to some people’s notions of “Japaneseness”.
“I love Osaka-chan and I loved her even more after she did this. It was brave and it was part of her character,” says Ms Taguchi, who started researching more on Taylor and the BLM protests. “I think that there were some stories about the Japanese sponsors being unhappy but everything is too conservative in Japan. We need more people like Osaka-chan to shake things up.”
Athlete activism has existed in the US for decades, ignited by the influence of Muhammad Ali, the heavyweight boxer, and sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos in the 1960s. All were punished for their activism and shunned by their sports. But a confluence of factors since then have amplified the power of athletes turning them from entertainment figures to some of the most prominent drivers of social conversation.
Those factors — including the shift from network television to cable and streaming, the increased distribution of sports broadcasts, a global growth of the middle class, and the opening of borders since the cold war — have “layered on top of one another” to create the current era of the powerful celebrity athlete, according to Mr de Picciotto.
In 2020, the police killings of Floyd, Taylor and other African-Americans led to massive social unrest around the US and throughout the world, giving new urgency to Black Lives Matter, a movement that promotes racial equality and denounces forces of systemic racism, including police brutality.
In the days following the Floyd killing, videos by NFL players demanding change and racial justice prompted an extraordinary apology by League commissioner Roger Goodell for not accommodating earlier protests by the likes of Mr Kaepernick.
The NFL, the NBA and other leagues began incorporating social justice slogans on fields of play and on uniforms this summer, at the request of players. A tipping point came in August with a mass walkout by players in professional basketball, baseball, football, and tennis — including Ms Osaka — in protest of the police shooting of another black man, Jacob Blake, in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
The scale of the BLM movement this year has “forced these challenging conversations to happen, especially in the corporate landscape”, says Blake Griffin, an NBA star who is endorsed by Nike’s Jordan brand, among other companies. This summer Michael Jordan, who was famously apolitical when he was one of the world’s most recognisable sports star in the 1990s, pledged $100m over the next decade together with the Jordan brand “to organisations dedicated to ensuring racial equality, social justice and greater access to education”.
The leagues, companies, sponsors and agents have recognised the need to incorporate the athletes’ messages in their advertising.
Christa Carone, chief executive of the North America division at sports agency CSM, works with athletes, brands and leagues including the Women’s Tennis Association. After the August walkouts, Ms Carone says, “there wasn’t a single brand that said they wanted to step away” from sponsoring sports.
“This is a commercial environment, right, everything is a business, and no one was stepping away” she says.
Though athlete activism has existed for decades, until recently sports stars had to think critically about when and where they could engage on issues beyond the playing field.
“You still have people like [Fox News host] Laura Ingraham who tell LeBron to ‘shut up and dribble’”, says Mr Griffin. A decade into his playing career, Mr Griffin is now more comfortable advocating for social issues and rebutting critics who, he says, fundamentally misunderstand facets of the movement for racial justice.
“It’s almost like, if you say ‘Black Lives Matter Also’ at the end, people would be less freaked out in general,” he adds.
Ted Chervin, chairman of agency ICM Stellar Sports, says he found a way to “marry the moment to the client” this summer when Malcolm Jenkins signed a contributor contract with CNN to comment on national affairs, the first time an active NFL player has had such an agreement with a news broadcaster.
“When we originally signed him, he wanted an opportunity to extend his brand beyond sports,” Mr Chervin says. After the death of George Floyd and the subsequent upheaval within American football, “[we] thought, what about reaching out to CNN?”
Mr Chervin says the perception that athletes, particularly in the US, could speak out on social issues without eliminating professional opportunities for themselves has evolved over the past five years.
“The obvious circumstance to point to is Kaep,” he says, referring to Mr Kaepernick, whose protests effectively cost him his job as a player but catapulted him to broader influence, thanks to a prominent Nike advertisement in 2018 which endorsed his activism.
Today, brands that use athletes or celebrities for product marketing are rethinking their approach to civic issues, from systemic racism to voter enfranchisement. US sportswear maker Under Armour launched its first initiative to help members of the public register to vote this year, according to chief executive Patrik Frisk.
“If you asked me earlier this year if we would do such a thing, I would have said, ‘are you crazy? Why would I do that?’ But things have changed,” says Mr Chervin. The rise in athlete activism has, in fact, made it easier for the company — which relies on affiliations with stars and teams to sell products — to identify good partnerships for endorsements.
“Today, it’s easier to understand what a person or institution stands for and that they would be aligned with our stand against discrimination in any form,” he adds.
When sport and politics collide
Muhammad Ali becomes a conscientious objector to the Vietnam war draft and is stripped of his boxing heavyweight title
1968 Tommie Smith and John Carlos give a clenched fist salute after winning gold and bronze in the 200m at the Mexico City Olympics
Tennis player Billie Jean King campaigns for Title IX, a landmark US law which affords women equal access to sport and educational opportunities
Arthur Ashe, the US tennis player, is arrested outside the South African embassy in Washington during an anti-apartheid protest
Michael Jordan declines to make an endorsement in a Senate race in North Carolina, saying “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”
LeBron James tweeted a photo of the Miami Heat NBA team wearing hoodies to protest the shooting death of black teenager Trayvon Martin.
Colin Kaepernick takes a knee to protest racial injustice during the national anthem ritual before NFL games
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell apologises for not accommodating earlier player protests, amid unrest following the police killing of George Floyd
The NBA season resumes, incorporating Black Lives Matter and social justice slogans on court and player jerseys. Other competitions follow suit
WNBA players begin a ‘Vote Warnock’ campaign for the Georgia Senate race, opposing Atlanta Dream part-owner and Republican incumbent Kelly Loeffler who is critical of the Black Lives Matter movement
Milwaukee Bucks sit out their NBA Playoff game in protest at the police shooting of Jacob Blake, kicking off a labour strike that spreads through other sports including baseball, tennis, and hockey
Unease in Asia
When Ms Osaka first appeared in a BLM mask, the response in Japan was not so straightforward.
Senior executives from two of her Japanese sponsor companies, according to people familiar with the situation, held emergency internal meetings to discuss what the impact for their brands.
Even now, with the benefit of almost two months to craft the perfect response, the ultra-cautious public reactions of her Japanese sponsors — companies that have all revelled in the ‘Naomi effect’ on product sales — suggest an unease with the change in stance.
While the cosmetics giant Shiseido says “we support the active and beautiful way of life of all sports enthusiasts in many different ways”, Citizen Watch says the company “respects her courageous actions”. Yonex, which makes Ms Osaka’s rackets, believes her actions “reflect our fundamental values”, while Nissin says she embodies its “hungry to win” slogan. All say they received a broad range of responses on her mask-based campaign.
However, sponsors in Japan are also aware of the series of events over the summer in the US that tipped the scales of power in favour of athletes.
It was this reality that caused Ms Osaka’s actions to resonate so powerfully in Tokyo. “They [Japanese companies and advertising agencies] look at the US and they see this shift in control and they wonder how long they can hold on to theirs,” says the chief executive of one Tokyo-based advertising agency.
The question, say marketing experts in Japan, is whether the new “Naomi effect” will be her ability to show that there are alternatives to the way things have always been done in Japan and to promote the awareness that not all deviation from the script is necessarily bad.
The Japanese advertising industry, says Hideki Ogino, chief executive of online advertising group FICC, has generally allowed companies to outsource most of the thinking about brand building and messaging. Because it suits the big agencies financially to use celebrities, they have pushed that on companies and then allowed the companies and the general public to build an expectation that those celebrities will speak only when required and be squeaky clean, he says.
“In the US, you hire for skills; in Japan you hire for image,” he says, adding that Ms Osaka’s great challenge to Japan’s status quo lies in the idea that image is ultimately something that the stars control, rather than the companies hiring their services.
Saeko Ishita, an expert on Japanese advertising at Osaka City University, says the habit-bound, celebrity-dependent advertising industry is simultaneously rigid in its conventions but also potentially vulnerable to change.
About 80 per cent of television advertising in Japan, she says, deploys a celebrity of some type — the highest ratio in the world followed by South Korea and China. As Japanese advertising budgets have shrunk and strategies changed, the focus on big foreign stars has diminished. That has placed even more emphasis on domestic celebrities — the singers and actors beholden to Japan’s powerful talent agencies provide the main feedstock, but sports stars are an increasing staple.
The practice has been kept alive by a compact in which the advertisers and sponsors demand rigorously innocuous behaviour from their pet celebrity, and have generally received that. Ms Osaka, whose sponsors have not abandoned her whatever their private views on her protests, has shown that it is possible to take a stand and survive.
“Speaking honestly, I would have to say that there has been more support and goodwill for her activism in the US market,” says Stuart Duguid, senior vice-president at IMG Tennis and agent for Ms Osaka. While the individuals who work at her Japanese brand partners are often supportive of her activism, “the Japanese companies, speaking corporately, are reluctant to support any message. They are steadfastly neutral.”
The corporate traditions ranged against any change may prove formidably hard to shift, Mr Duguid adds. “[But], if anyone can change that tradition, it would be Naomi Osaka.”