Wednesday 2 June 2021 5:07 pm

Sponsors and sports must do more to protect the mental health of athletes like Naomi Osaka

Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal from the French Open on mental health grounds should come as a surprise to no one, given the conversation around the wellbeing of elite athletes.  

The four-times grand slam winner may be one of the more reserved tennis players on the women’s circuit, so to speak openly about her depression and anxiety takes enormous courage. 

However, when you consider the reaction to Osaka’s decision, including threats to bar the 23-year-old from future tournaments if she refuses to talk to the press, it’s clear that the conversation around mental health is falling on deaf ears. 

There’s no question that media coverage is important to the popularity and commercial appeal of the sport. After all, the investment the tennis slams receive from broadcasters and event sponsors puts them among the world’s most lucrative sporting events.

Osaka has an estimated $25m net worth and ranked in the top 30 highest-paid athletes in 2021. Although the majority of her earnings were made on the court, her endorsement deals with the likes of Nike, Louis Vuitton, and Mastercard make her one of the most marketable athletes of her generation. 

Ask yourself, then, how sponsors can serve their clients in raising the conversation around mental health. While Osaka uses her profile to bring awareness to equality issues, including the Black Lives Matter movement, isn’t it as much the sponsor’s role to protect and support the athlete’s right to good mental health?

What if sport’s biggest brands were to back their talent in the same way that Nike has backed Osaka for withdrawing from Roland Garros? Surely this would raise the importance of mental health and allowing people to afford themselves some breathing space.

How does public profile affect mental health?

According to a recent study carried out by Nielsen, athletes who adopt an authentic social media strategy are likely to increase their sponsorship by 11 per cent. Moreover, athlete advocacy posts on social media generate 63 per cent more engagement for their sponsors.

What this also tells us is that, in 2021, more athletes own a powerful voice and reach audiences stretching into their billions. While athletes leverage their digital channels to build their own personal brands, their status also helps to grow fan loyalty for their sport and sponsors. 

According to data published by SportsPro, the 50 most-marketed brands in sport in 2020 received a combined sponsorship value worth more than $3bn via social media. However, while social media presents a persuasive marketing tool, athletes continue to be exposed, inexplicably, to online abuse, further exacerbating the emotional strain they endure.

Consider, then, that at least 50 per cent of elite athletes say that they have experienced a mental health issue during their lifetime. Should we not also be asking ourselves how the public profile impacts an athlete’s wellbeing?

During my own career, I have had the chance to facilitate these discussions. Most recently, I moderated a panel with athletes including former NFL Pro-Bowler Brian Dawkins, Olympic gold medallist Helen Richardson-Walsh, and former footballer Clarke Carlisle. I also hosted a documentary with EuroLeague Basketball which spoke directly to the issues of mental health among its athletes. 

These conversations are important for everyone. In the case of Naomi Osaka, it would be tennis’s loss if she decided to walk away from the sport because she didn’t get support. With this in mind, sponsors and sports must do more to protect the mental health of athletes. 

Radha Balani is the director of design and facilitation at the sport for social impact consultancy, thinkBeyond.

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