After Time recently named Li Na as one of the world’s top 100 most influential people, my first thought was about the Timing (sorry). Her breakout performance was her French Open win in 2011, so why have they taken this long to put her on the list? Yes, her brand has continued to grow, but her main sponsors jumped on board in summer 2011, immediately after her Grand Slam win.
Anyway, the point of these lists is to generate discussion, so job done there. Interestingly, while many have predicted that Li Na would soon overtake Maria Sharapova as the world’s highest earning sportswoman, Sharapova’s recent deal with Porsche could keep her in the lead for a little while longer.
Here’s this week Sports Talk column:
Influence is a somewhat fluid concept, particularly in connection with Time Magazine’s annual list of the world’s 100 most influential people.
To say that Italian soccer player Mario Balotelli – one of just four sports figures on the list – is more influential than Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo is farcical.
Is he more colorful, more controversial? Yes, on both counts, and those factors sell magazines, so let’s forgive Time their poetic license.
The other sportsmen and women selected were US basketball star LeBron James, US Olympic skier Lindsay Vonn and Chinese tennis player Li Na, who was also chosen as one of seven cover portraits for different editions of Time magazine.
Li’s entry was written by Chris Evert, whose record of 18 Grand Slam singles titles dwarfs Li’s lone win at Roland Garros in 2011. But today is a different era, and Li earns considerably more in sponsorship revenue every year than Evert pulled in during her entire career.
It is perhaps surprising that Li is included on the 2013 list, when she won her breakout major title two years ago, but since that triumph, she has gone from strength to strength in terms of branding. Evert is right when she says that Li has “transcended her sport”: Most Chinese have never picked up a tennis racket, but they know Li’s name, they recognize her face and millions follow her on social media.
The achievements listed by Time may be dated, and the figures quoted about TV viewers and tennis enthusiasts in China are subject to the usual question marks, but with the retirement of Yao Ming, Li Na is unquestionably the most globally recognized Chinese sports star still plying his or her trade.
She may at some point soon even overtake Maria Sharapova as the world’s highest earning female sports star – only their accountants would know for sure – but Sharapova is five years younger, so would likely regain top spot after Li, already 31, ends her career.
Several other top players have won more than Li, but none of them has the unanimous backing of 1.3 billion people, who now see tennis in a different light compared with just a few years ago.
Is Li’s face on a billboard enough to persuade millions of customers to eat a certain ice cream or buy a particular life insurance policy? Probably not, but it certainly gives you a better chance.