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Opinion: With U.S. Open title in tow, could Emma Raducanu become the world's most marketable female athlete?

Emma Raducanu plays on the practice courts during the BNP Paribas Open. © Jayne Kamin-Oncea, USA TODAY Sports Emma Raducanu plays on the practice courts during the BNP Paribas Open.

With the shock of her U.S. Open win now worn off and the burst of publicity that came with it now her new normal, the first day of the rest of Emma Raducanu's tennis career begins Friday.

In some ways, after all the Met Galas and James Bond movie premieres and hitting tennis balls with members of the British royal family, getting down to the business of being a true professional on the WTA tour for the first time in her career is probably a relief. 

At the same time, Raducanu’s unprecedented rise from No. 338 in the rankings to 18-year-old Grand Slam champion in the span of 2 1/2 months has the stage for her to become something even larger than the game she plays: the most marketable woman in all of sports. 

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“The great thing about tennis is it’s one of the only sports in the world where the men and the women can earn the same, and I’d argue she has the ability to outperform their counterparts in the male game from a commercial point of view,” said Tim Lopez, the director of talent at CSM Sports & Entertainment based out of London. “I think she’s going to be much in demand.” 

How in demand? It’s too early to say definitively, but Raducanu checks a lot of the same boxes as Naomi Osaka, who made $55 million last year in off-court earnings according to Forbes, making her the highest-paid female athlete in the world. 

Like Osaka, who became a marketing powerhouse after winning the 2018 U.S. Open and backing it up with the 2019 Australian Open title, Raducanu comes from a multicultural background with a Romanian father and a Chinese mother. Her ability to speak fluent Mandarin makes her uniquely marketable to hundreds of millions of fans in the Far East. Even Canada, where she was born, has a stake in her success.

But what potentially sets Raducanu apart even from Osaka is that she has instantly become one of the most famous people in the U.K., a country that has never had a female athlete of her magnitude outside of the Olympic context. In fact, in the 65 years of the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award — arguably the highest honor in British sport and a very big deal over there — only 13 women have won it, and none of them competed in sports that are in the public consciousness to the extent tennis can be. 

British fans are so hungry for tennis stars that any hint of someone making a run at Wimbledon instantly becomes “insert-name-here-Mania,” as Lopez put it, before they typically fall back off the map.

But 9.2 million people in the U.K. watched Raducanu become the first British woman since 1977 to win a Grand Slam, shattering previous records for any women’s tennis match on television. And since then, the coverage of Raducanu in the British press has been full throttle with several newspapers sending reporters to Indian Wells to cover her return to the court — something that would almost never happen for a regular tournament, especially in the middle of a pandemic. 

Video: Raducanu defeated in first match since Grand Slam (Reuters)

“The U.K. has been crying out for someone like Emma Raducanu,” Lopez said. “Tennis is a global sport, it appeals to male and female, young and old, and she could transcend her sport and transcend the U.K. No disrespect to her predecessors (as British No. 1), but she’s managed to almost overnight surpass their achievements and potentially sort of answer a call that we weren’t aware we were making for someone to become that female icon, maybe our most iconic sportsperson — and that person just happens to be female. I think she has that potential.”

Raducanu came into the U.S. Open with small, short-term sponsorship deals with Nike and racquet supplier Wilson, which undoubtedly will be renegotiated at the first opportunity. Since then, she has added a deal with jewelry retailer Tiffany & Co., which might in itself be a statement about the types of companies she’ll be looking to partner with. 

Her agent, Max Eisenbud of IMG, certainly has plenty of experience pairing prominent women's tennis players with high-end brands, having previously managed Maria Sharapova and Li Na. And given that Raducanu’s Instagram account just passed the 2 million follower mark — it was around 400,000 when the U.S. Open started — the price is almost certainly going to be high. 

“The dream from a brand point of view with someone like her is you partner with brands that say as much about you as you say about them,” Lopez said. “You can argue that having Tiffany’s as her first partner was just bang-on because it does have a certain renown. It's a very elegant brand, a very respected brand, a historic brand but she’s made it cool and relevant and she’s made it appeal to Gen (Z). I think that sets a stall out for the kind of brands she’ll be looking for and the kind of brands that would be likely to follow. I see no reason why she couldn't attract other high end brands, luxury brands. We could be looking clothing, motor vehicles, any high end product that wants someone who can appeal to a global audience across a range of demographics and age groups.”

Of course, her tennis also has to factor into the discussion -- and that part may not be as easy as securing sponsors. Raducanu’s U.S. Open win was only the fourth tournament at the WTA level that she had ever played, largely because her ranking was so low that she couldn’t get into those draws without either a wildcard (which she received at Wimbledon this year, making the round of 16) or making it through qualifying rounds. 

Now ranked No. 22, Raducanu can get into any tournament she wants. But the week-in, week-out grind of being on tour is not something she has really experienced. And now, when she shows up at any event, it’s going to be a big deal with lots of media and sponsor commitments as well as the pressure of being one of the favorites. 

In a taste of what real life is going to be like for Raducanu now, she's likely going to face two-time Grand Slam champion and No. 17-ranked Simona Halep in the second round at Indian Wells assuming she beats Aliaksandra Sasnovich on Friday. Raducanu will learn quickly that it’s not as easy as she made it look in New York. 

“I don’t want to change anything,” she told reporters in her pre-tournament news conference at Indian Wells. “What got me to this point is not thinking differently. If I put additional thoughts in my head, that would just create a problem, I think, so I’m going to keep going about my business and staying the same.”

Of course, it’s impossible to stay the same — which she acknowledged herself in making a coaching change after the U.S. Open. While her partnership with Andrew Richardson this summer was always supposed to be a short-term arrangement, it raised some eyebrows across the sport when she announced that she was looking for a new coach who has more experience on the pro tour. 

Raducanu has also announced a pretty ambitious schedule for this fall, entering the Kremlin Cup in Moscow and Transylvania Open in Romania later this month and an event in Linz, Austria, in November. 

For someone who has not played a lot of professional tennis, getting that experience may be good for her. But Lopez hopes she takes it a bit more slowly when it comes to adding corporate partnerships. With such far-reaching appeal and a long career ahead of her, Raducanu should be choosy about what to take on. 

“There’s definitely a balance that needs to be struck between leveraging your opportunity and not pushing to the extent where you end up burning out and having a detrimental effect on your ability to perform your job on the court,” he said. “There’s no hurry. Just do it right, pick the right brands, maximize your earning capacity from each brand —  less is more — and don’t do it too soon.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Opinion: With U.S. Open title in tow, could Emma Raducanu become the world's most marketable female athlete?


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