The inside story of how Li Na, the first Chinese to win a grand slam singles title, came to threaten Maria Sharapova for the title of the world’s highest-earning sportswoman.
‘How to Go West and Win’ is the working title for Li Na’s coming memoir, a story which promises to be as much about her triumphs in corporate America and corporate Europe as about forehands, backhands and the burnt-orange clay of Roland Garros. In China’s bookshops, try searching in the ‘business’ section.
A senior analyst for Forbes magazine, someone who knows more than most about multi-millionaire one-woman corporations, has told thetennisspace that the Chinese – who last season became the world’s second highest-earning female athlete – could move above Maria Sharapova in the money-list. Capitalism has been good to Li, who not so long ago still had a quasi-communist arrangement with the state tennis authorities under which she was required to give them more than 60 per cent of any prize-money she earned on the tour (she has since been allowed to ‘fly alone’, though she still pays a small percentage of everything she earns to Beijing). “The best comparison to Li Na’s endorsement breakout is Maria Sharapova after she won Wimbledon in 2004 – Sharapova had very few endorsements before her first grand slam win and suddenly she became a corporate darling with a myriad of multi-million endorsement deals thrown at her,” Kurt Badenhausen, of Forbes, said of China’s first grand slam singles champion.
Though Badenhausen had expected that Li’s victory at the French Open would make her rich, he had not appreciated quite how rich, with her annual off-court earnings estimated to be between twelve and fifteen million pounds. Previously, she had only just broken seven figures for her sponsorship portfolio. “In other sports, I think the closest comparison is LeBron James who signed a slew of deals as soon as he declared for the NBA draft as a high school senior. Interest had been building in LeBron for a while, but he is another athlete who signed multiple multi-million deals in a very short time. Li Na’s win was historic and I thought the interest in the victory was appropriate. Being a breakout sports star has enormous potential, but I was surprised by the number of endorsement deals she signed and the value of them as she is closer to the end of her career than the beginning,” Badenhausen said of Li, who turns 30 in February (Sharapova was 17 when she won Wimbledon). “Credit for Li cashing in should go to her agent, Max Eisenbud, who already went through this to some degree as Sharapova’s agent. Li and Sharapova are head and shoulders above any other female tennis players in terms of compensation. Li has the potential to earn more than Sharapova on a yearly basis if she can continue her success.”
The first indication of Li’s economic power did not come when she won La Coupe Suzanne Lenglen at last season’s French Open; it came in the early months of 2010 when Nike, the American company which supplies her clothes, agreed that she could wear other sponsors’ patches on her sleeves. To anyone outside the tennis industry, that may not sound like the most significant of concessions, yet Nike were supposed to have a strict rule that all their tennis players wore ‘clean’ kit, with the company logo on their clothes being the swoosh. Roger Federer has never been permitted by Nike to have other companies’ insignia on his Nike shirts, and the restriction had also limited Rafael Nadal and Sharapova’s commercial activities. Yet Nike broke their own rules and made an exception for Li, whose contract was up for negotiation, and who had just reached the semi-finals of that year’s Australian Open. “That’s a question for Nike why they allowed that,” Li’s agent, Max Eisenbud of IMG, said in an interview with thetennisspace, “but there were Chinese clothing brands establishing themselves in the market, and I fought hard for that as I knew the importance of patches in the Chinese market, I guess that all had something to do with it.”
That was not long after Eisenbud had signed Li as a client, in late 2009. “I had always wanted to sign her – I had always liked her game, I knew that China was an important market, and I had thought that she could be a top-five player,” recalled Eisenbud, who also represents Sharapova. “I didn’t know that she would go on to become a grand slam champion. No one can predict that.”
It was after Li reached the final of last season’s Australian Open, where she mocked her husband for his snoring and finished as the runner-up to Kim Clijsters, that she started to earn large sums off the court. As a result of that tournament, she signed four new contracts, with the Swiss watchmakers Rolex, with the American-based ice-cream company Haagen-Dazs, with Visa, and with the Chinese website Sina. One fortnight in Paris later, and Li was a player transformed in the global marketplace, and she signed seven sponsorship contracts, and Eisenbud has suggested that she could have agreed to several more, but that would not have left much time for her tennis. The new commercial relationships were with the German car makers Mercedes-Benz, the Australian hotel and casino company Crown Towers, a Chinese insurance company, a Chinese dairy firm, and a Chinese mineral water company. “It was pretty nuts. We had several offers on the tables in each category. We identified the companies that we wanted to work with,” Eisenbud said, who had not heard the story that had been doing the rounds in China of Li being approached to endorse a product which kills cockroaches.
“At the time, I was thinking, ‘oh my God’ because of the interest. But now when I look at it, it makes sense. She is the first Chinese to win a grand slam, and you have to think that China is the only place in the world whose economy is going well right now.”