Li Na on course to be world’s highest earning female athlete

Saturday’s Australian Open women’s tennis final will be an all-Nike affair as Li Na faces off against Victoria Azarenka. Nothing particularly unusual there, given that the US sportswear giant also sponsors Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams. But Nike won’t quite have it all its own way.

That’s because Li Na has a deal – unique among Nike’s stable of tennis superstars that also includes Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer – that allows her to have two other brands on her shirt in addition to the Nike swoosh. Those two? The well-known car company Mercedes-Benz, and the less well-known insurance company Taikang Life.

With Li leading the way, Mercedes has projected that China will be its biggest market by 2015, so paying $4.5 million to get the company’s logo on Li’s right sleeve for three years would seem to be money well spent.

But the biggest winner has to be Taikang, who occupy Li’s coveted left sleeve. Insurance is hardly the sexiest business in the world, but being associated with Li Na’s combination of talent, success, humour and, of course, visibility in the world’s most populous country has the potential to transform a company’s image.

Li burst into the international sponsorship spotlight after reaching the Australian Open final in early 2011, signing with Rolex and others in the spring of that year. But her maiden Grand Slam win at the French Open in June saw the floodgates open in a matter of weeks. Tennis actually got in the way, with her agent saying she simply didn’t have time to sign any more deals.

And after beating Sharapova in the semi-finals in Melbourne on Thursday, some are forecasting that Li might soon beat her off the court too. A win in the final – and you can be sure the Australian crowd will be on her side after Azarenka’s antics in her semi-final – could help Li become the highest paid female athlete in the world.

Of all her deals, though, the best is surely her one with Haagen-Dazs, the ice cream company’s first foray into top level sports sponsorship. She gets a few million dollars, of course, but she also gets free ice cream at Haagen-Dazs stores all around the world.

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