Thursday, 4 August 2011

Lina : soon to be richest woman in sports

Li Na, the French Open tennis champion, is on course to become the richest woman in sports as companies fight to cash in on her enormous popularity in China.

Li, 29, has played only four tennis matches and won only about $50,000 in prize money since her victory at Roland Garros in June, but she has signed at least $42 million in sponsorship deals this year with the likes of Mercedes-Benz, Rolex and Haagen-Dazs, all of which believe she could be the key to the enormously lucrative Chinese market.

Her agent, Max Eisenbud, said Tuesday it was "hard to set a price" for potential sponsors after Li became the first Chinese to win a grand slam tennis tournament.

"We had to change it a lot . upwards," he said.

At present, Li's earnings are second only to Maria Sharapova, the Russian she beat in the semifinals in Paris, but they are likely to swap positions if Li can continue to triumph in major events.

Li and Sharapova are both scheduled to play in Toronto next week during the Rogers AT&T Cup.

For many Chinese, Li is a maverick. Known as "China's No. 1 sister" since her victory in the French Open, she has a tattoo, has dyed her hair and has been known to shout at her fans and her husband.

In 2008, she quit China's Sovietstyle national sports system and started her own team, giving her control over her finances and making her a role model of independence from the state.

That did not stop her, however, from appearing on the cover of People's Daily, the staid official newspaper, in a spot usually reserved for Hu Jintao, the president, when she triumphed in Paris. An estimate 120 million Chinese watched the match on television.

"What a transformation!" said Terry Rhoads, the former head of sports marketing at Nike, who gave Li her first $25,000-a-year sponsorship deal in 1998.

"Two years ago, she could not buy a sponsor. Now she is the only person with a Nike deal who is allowed to wear patches from other sponsors on her clothes," he said.

"They told Nike: 'If you blink, there are a host of Chinese sports brands ready to pay big money.' "

As international brands try to make their mark in China, Li is in a seller's market, he said.

"You have a lot of people searching for someone who has credibility, who can make the needle move and make Chinese stop and think. And Li Na has separated herself from the pack," Rhoads said.

"She speaks English, she has a great personality, and she's a world champion in a sport that China has traditionally not dominated."

With Yao Ming retiring, "that leaves a big hole," he added, referring to China's No. 1 former sports hero who was forced to retire from the National Basketball Association after a stellar career because of recurring injuries.

"She is also a great ambassador, very pleasant and very interesting, and that has a positive effect on the way people see China, which makes Chinese people feel very proud."

However, Ye Feng, a brand consultant in Beijing, said Li, who returns to her hometown of Wuhan to play a tournament later this year, might be too ordinary to captivate the Chinese market.

"In general, Chinese fans prefer athletes with good looks, which is not her advantage," he said. "She is very plain."

"Yao Ming is much more recognizable to Chinese eyes . and men get more attention from the public. I am not sure many Chinese could identify Li Na's face."


Maria Sharapova may not have won a grand slam title since 2008, but the Russian tennis player remains unchallenged as the highest-paid woman in professional sports.

For the seventh consecutive year, Sharapova topped the annual list provided by Forbes magazine.

Her earnings, mostly off-court endorsements, were estimated at $25 million, twice as much as her nearest rival, Denmark's Caroline Wozniacki, the current women's world No. 1.

Race driver Danica Patrick of the United States was third with $12 million, followed by tennis players Venus Williams ($11.5 million) of the U.S., Kim Clijsters ($11 million) of Belgium and Serena Williams ($10.5 million) of the U.S.

Seven of the top nine female earners were tennis players, including China's Li Na, who made $8 million last year, but was expected to soar up the rankings and challenge Sharapova for top spot after her breakthrough triumph in the French Open in June, and Ana Ivanovic ($6 million) of Serbia.

South Korean figure skater Kim Yu Na was seventh at $10 million, and U.S. golfer Paula Creamer was 10th at $5.5 million.


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