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The Business of Tennis
The Volley: Naomi Osaka’s EVOL-ution the latest in tennis entrepreneurial endeavors
Breaking down Osaka’s launch of her own agency, and where that falls in the growing trend of athletes-turned-business mavens.
Published May 16, 2022
WATCH: Tennis Channel discussed Osaka's EVOLVE launch earlier this week.
Naomi Osaka’s announced launch of the EVOLVE sports agency is the latest in a growing trend that sees elite athletes embracing their entrepreneurial spirit, both to maximize their own financial potential and change the landscape of the sports-business industry.
In this edition of The Volley, David Kane and Stephanie Livaudais talk money moves, break down the best player-led ventures and ponder just how well court sense translates to the boardroom.
David Kane: Hey Steph! Naomi Osaka certainly forced our hand on this one, but it did only feel like a matter of time before one of our Volleys took on a Shark Tank twist. Are you in or are you out?
Seriously, though, Osaka truly sent shockwaves through the tennis world when it was announced that the trailblazing former world No. 1 would end her relationship with management company IMG to launch EVOLVE, her own sports agency, alongside longtime agent Stuart Duguid. What did you make of the move, and why do you think she made it?
Stephanie Livaudais: Hi David! I’m very much here for this. Even though she pulled out of Rome with an Achilles injury, she’s still dominating the tennis headlines even from off the court.
She’s definitely not the first tennis player who’s walked away from a big agency—Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal both made the same move during the big IMG exodus of 2011-2012—and outside of tennis we’ve seen the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Kevin Durant and LeBron James set out on their own like this. But it’s the first time we’ve seen a move like this from an elite female athlete, and that feels pretty significant.
Here’s what she had to say about her fledgling one-woman show: “I’ve spent my career doing things my way, even when people told me that it wasn’t what was expected or traditional. EVOLVE is the natural next step in my journey as both an athlete and businesswoman, as well as a way to continue being myself and doing things my way.”
DK: It absolutely feels in line with the way Osaka has been cultivating her brand in the post-lockdown landscape that began in 2020. As a wise America’s Next Top Model contestant once said, “If you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything,” and the 24-year-old has indeed been taking her share of ground-breaking stances, undaunted by neither skepticism nor criticism.
An Osaka-curated roster of players would be the latest in redefining the Gen Z elite athlete, and it’s easy to imagine many a rising star looking to get under her umbrella. NBA standout/vaccine skeptic Kyrie Irving was among the first to voice support, tweeting his interest directly to Osaka, who at least appears to be entertaining the application.
SL: Honestly same. Where do I sign up for Naomi’s agency? But it seems like we’ll all have to get in line. Duguid spoke more about EVOLVE in that Sportico article, and it sounds more like an Osaka-centric wealth incubator than an agency focused on scouting and representing talent—at least at the outset.
“The core of Evolve is building Naomi’s business from $50 million a year to $150 million a year,” Duguid said, adding that EVOLVE may take on “another client or two” down the line.
Which is fair enough: that’s how most of the athletes we previously mentioned have set up their own shops. When Nadal and his agent Carlos Costa left IMG to found His7ory Sports Management, they focused their efforts on growing his own partnerships and business ventures like his eponymous Academy.
That’s in contrast to Federer’s TEAM8, which has been a notable exception in that they’ve actively pursued and represented talent and organized tennis events in addition to building his own wealth.
DK: Pause: you’re telling me Nadal’s agency name has a 7 and Federer’s has an 8? That’s either more GOAT debate subtext or a tragically missed opportunity for Naomi to work a 9 into EVOLVE. Too late for a 9VOLV9 rebrand?
TEAM8 has broken from the Nadal-Osaka pattern by actively building a wide portfolio, one that may yet include a major tournament on the ATP calendar. In addition to the vaunted Laver Cup, it has been reported that the company created by Federer and agent Tony Godsick has expressed interest in acquiring the ATP sanction for the Western & Southern Open, an ATP Masters and WTA 1000 tournament in Cincinnati currently owned by the USTA and Octagon, respectively.
SL: In the words of Lindsay Lohan, these are just rumors. But it would be in line with TEAM8’s focus on tennis: they’re also a major investor in Universal Tennis and their small but strong stable of players includes Federer himself, Coco Gauff and the recently retired Juan Martin del Potro. In the past they represented Alexander Zverev and Grigor Dimitrov.
After getting Laver Cup officially sanctioned on the ATP calendar, it makes sense they’d go after a big tournament now that the opportunity has presented itself.
DK: Woven into the wider discourse surrounding tennis’ pervasive conflicts of interest, a TEAM8 ownership of Cincinnati strikes me more as a Thing Exists rather than Thing Good or Bad: plenty of top-flight tournaments are owned or managed by sports agencies, who, themselves, boast a roster of athletes competing in those tournaments.
Does it expose a deeper conflict if the organization in question is run by a player competing for the title? It may not seem any stranger than how Feliciano Lopez has continued his playing career since becoming tournament director for the Mutua Madrid Open.
SL: …Who is only one of several players-turned-tournament directors on both tours, including Amélie Mauresmo at Roland Garros, James Blake at Miami, David Ferrer at Barcelona and more. It’s been a popular retirement pivot for the top players, including Tommy Haas at Indian Wells, who took the position in 2017 as an active player but limited his participation to one exhibition match during the BNP Paribas Open before his retirement later that year.
Tennis players, agents, tournaments, tours—they’ve all been enmeshed for a long time.
DK: Haas’ tenure has been well-received by players from the outset, and there is something to be said about a former player knowing what amenities his or her colleagues would want from a tournament. Lopez has never attempted to enter the Madrid draw since taking his post; the event has, instead, earned more rightful criticism for its staggered scheduling of its men’s and women’s tournaments this season. Men’s runner-up Zverev was especially outspoken about the turnaround between his late-finishing semifinal against Stefanos Tsitsipas and his Sunday afternoon final against Carlos Alcaraz.
But then, we know from his time in Acapulco just how testy Zverev can be without enough sleep.
We still don’t know what condition Federer will be in when he makes his long-awaited comeback; if he, unlike Lopez, appears like a threat to win the Western & Southern Open title, a tournament he’s won seven times, will he grow to regret acquiring the event should the deal move forward? Otherwise, I do like most business-minded and ambitious types like Blake and Mauresmo taking the reins at big tournaments, a continuation of tennis’ original tradition of spearheading what’s best for their fellow players.
SL: It’s true, tennis has a long history—right back to the inception of both tours—of putting players in the drivers’ seat. Or, more accurately, of players taking the wheel and assuming control of their own future in the sport.
You could argue that the modern WTA and ATP Tours are the epitome of a player-led venture: the ATP’s famed Parking Lot Press Conference of 1988 was essentially a player revolt that paved the way for the new men’s tour, while the WTA Original 9’s iconic signing of $1 contracts in 1973 set in motion the first professional women’s tour.
DK: Talk about a couple of unforgettable tennis court oaths! It’s easy to raise an eyebrow at business ventures launched by those who may lack, dare I say it? “A formal education.” But to be successful on the tennis court requires a level of belief, vision and teamwork that has historically translated outside the lines.
Of course, not every venture has been an unmitigated success: the Professional Tennis Players Association came together amidst a rush of sound and fury, but has ultimately signified little in the time since its 2020 inception. Though the PTPA was born out of a desire to better represent players in an ever-changing world, opportunities to take Naomi Osaka-level stances on things like vaccine mandates and Russo-Ukraine relations have only yielded wishy-washy statements that leave the organization firmly outside the very conversations they wish to lead.
Wrapping up, is there a field—within tennis or without—you can see benefitting from a tennis player’s touch? We might need a small army of them forecasting fashion trends over at Adidas!
SL: It’s been a while since the ATP and WTA tours were led by a player, but I’d hesitate to say that should change. The ideal leader for the tours should have a strong business or law background and be diplomatic enough to balance a whole range of interests, not just focusing on players’ needs.
However, I really like seeing players taking positions of leadership within the tournaments, like tournament director or similar role. That seems like an easy win for all sides: the players seem to like having a former player steering the ship and paying attention to details that only other players would notice; the tournaments also get to have a very media-friendly figure leading their promo and marketing efforts; plus a tournament where the players are in a good mood is always a win for fans.
Another place that former players really shine is in the commentary booth. There’s a different element that they bring in terms of match analysis or post-match interviews that you might not necessarily get from a journalist, even if they’re quite experienced in tennis. Players like Pam Shriver, Mary Joe Fernandez, Tracy Austin, Andy Roddick and Alizé Lim have all gone in this direction, and I think tennis broadcasts greatly benefit from that.
DK: I think the final frontier for tennis players as media moguls was laid out by a young Venus and Serena Williams, who published the Tennis Monthly Recap newsletter at the very start of their careers. The trend continues today in micro form with Behind The Racquet, an initiative started by Noah Rubin.
Players have often expressed an interest in reclaiming their narratives from journalists and social media pundits; perhaps we could see the landscape change further with an outlet led by a former player, one who understands their subjects on a cellular level. Might we see the development of a more robust Players’ Tribune? I know I’d be in the wings ready to proofread!