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Naomi Osaka playing a backhand in her first round match against Patricia Maria Tig of Romania during Day One of the 2021 French Open. Julian Finney/Getty Images

How could athlete sponsorships change after the French Open?

Janet Nguyen Jun 14, 2021
Naomi Osaka playing a backhand in her first round match against Patricia Maria Tig of Romania during Day One of the 2021 French Open. Julian Finney/Getty Images

Tennis star Novak Djokovic won the French Open on Sunday, beating Stefanos Tsitsipas — the culmination of two weeks of matches.

During that time, four-time grand slam champion Naomi Osaka declined to speak to the press in order to prioritize her mental health. She was fined $15,000 and faced the possibility of disqualification if she continued to refuse press engagements, prompting her to withdraw from the tournament.

 “The truth is that I have suffered long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018,” she wrote in a tweet about her decision

“Osaka brought to light an issue that has been kept quiet, or hush-hush, amongst athletes,” said Seth Rose, a partner at the advanced media and technology department of the law firm Loeb & Loeb. 

The director general of the French tennis federation told the Associated Press on Sunday that tennis officials “can do better” in addressing athletes’ mental health issues. Osaka’s withdrawal has prompted conversations about mental health and the obligations athletes have toward the press. With millions of advertising and sponsorship dollars at stake, it also raises questions about the commitments athletes have to brands and the visibility expected of them.

In another high-profile withdrawal, Roger Federer left the tournament after saying he was listening to his body and didn’t want to push himself too hard

Rose explained that the advertising ecosystem for events like these include the advertisers who buy commercial time during the event, the official sponsors of the event and the sponsors who have relationships with the athletes. 

Rose said not every sponsorship deal will require a performance at a particular event. Although he’s not privy to Federer’s or Osaka’s contracts, he said that generally if an athlete doesn’t meet the requirements for a contract, there are built-in remedies. 

There might be what’s called a pro rata reduction of any endorsement fee the sponsor pays, or there might be a mutually agreed upon make-good clause where the athlete has to, for example, make an appearance elsewhere or post a certain amount on social media, according to Rose. 

Major companies like Mastercard and Nike — who sponsor Osaka — have backed the sports star. 

“The tournament’s going on no matter what, but the brands are investing in these people, and, if you’re Nike, you don’t want to have the reputation of not supporting your athletes that you’re endorsing,” Rose said. 

When it comes to the events themselves, Rose said he thinks that in the future the rules on being interviewed and having to do press could be relaxed, since the French Open doesn’t look good for refusing to take into account a person’s psychological needs. 

He added it’s possible that star players could negotiate something additional, like having a rider or putting an addendum in their contract, that could decrease the amount of time they devote to speaking to the press for an event. 

“I could foresee some of the bigger names having some leverage to be able to push back and have reduced requirements ” Rose said. 

Angeline Scheinbaum, an associate professor of marketing at Clemson University, said that after Osaka’s withdrawal, there’s now more scrutiny on the fines that athletes have to pay for withdrawing. 

“I’m thinking the solution for the sports industries and the sports marketers is to grow and reflect that athletes, especially these superstars, are humans with real-world physical and mental health concerns,” Scheinbaum said.

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