Chinese tennis star set to be world’s top earning female athlete
Li Na, the French Open tennis champion, is poised to become the richest woman in sport as companies fight to cash in on her enormous popularity in China.
Mrs Li, 29, has only played four tennis matches and won around €28,000 in prize money since her victory at French Open in Roland Garros stadium in Paris in June.
However, she has signed at least $42m (€29m) of sponsorship deals this year with the likes of Mercedes-Benz, Rolex and Haagen Dazs, who believe that she may be the key to the lucrative Chinese market.
Her agent, Max Eisenbud, said it was "hard to set a price" after Mrs Li became the first Chinese to win a grand slam tennis tournament. "We had to change it a lot," he added.
At present, Mrs Li is only out-earned by Maria Sharapova, the glamorous Russian tennis player who she beat in the semi-finals in Paris, but they are likely to swap positions if she can continue to triumph in major tournaments.
For many Chinese, Mrs Li is a maverick. Known as "China's number one sister" since her victory, she has a tattoo, has dyed her hair, and has been known to shout at both her fans and her husband.
In 2008, she quit China's Soviet-style 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 front cover of the People's Daily, the staid official newspaper, in a spot usually reserved for Hu Jintao, the president, when she triumphed in Paris and more than 116 million Chinese watched the match.
"What a transformation!" said Terry Rhoads, the former head of sports marketing at Nike who gave Mrs Li her first $25,000 (€17,651) 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 can 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 chase the Chinese market, Mrs Li is in a seller's market, he added.
"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," he said. "She speaks English, she has a great personality, and she's a world champion in a sport that China has traditionally not dominated in. And with Yao Ming retiring, that leaves a big hole," he added, referring to China's former sporting hero who was forced to quit basketball earlier this year due to injury.
"She is also a great ambassador, very pleasant and very interesting, and that has a positive effect on the way that people see China, which makes Chinese people feel very proud," he said.
However, Ye Feng, a brand consultant in Beijing, said he felt Mrs Li, who is scheduled to return 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. "Yao Ming is much more recognisable to Chinese eyes and men get more attention from the public," he added. "I am not sure many Chinese could identify Li Na's face".