She is a four-time Grand Slam singles champion and is the world’s highest paid singles champion, earning $57 million in 2021, mostly from sponsorship. Walmart recently began stocking products from the Kinl skin care company in nearly 3,000 locations. Last month, I set up a sports acting agency.
And now Naomi Osaka is rushing into Hollywood with the help of LeBron James.
Ms. Osaka, 24, started a media company called Hana Kuma in partnership with SpringHill, a fast-growing entertainment, marketing and product company co-founded by Mr. James. Ms. Osaka said in a brief interview with Zoom that her ambitions for Hana Kuma, which means “flower bear” in Japanese, include written and unwritten TV series, documentaries, anime, and branded content, which are entertainment programs that include embedded or integrated advertisements.
“Honestly I can’t say if I would personally be into anything now,” Ms. Osaka said. “What excites me is my ability to inspire people and tell new stories, especially the ones I wanted to see as a kid. I’ve always wanted to see someone like me.” Ms. Osaka is of Japanese and Haitian descent.
Fans should expect Ms. Osaka’s invitation to back at least some of Hana Kuma’s shows, most of which are still in development. Ms. Osaka has been candid about topics many sports stars try to avoid. She was an early supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement. Last year, she launched a global debate about mental health in sports when she withdrew from the French Open, citing the need to make her well-being a priority. She also revealed past struggles with depression and anxiety.
Ms. Osaka’s honesty resonated with an audience beyond sports – youth in particular – making her a sponsorship dream even though she struggled recently on the tennis court. (She lost in the first round of the French Open last month. She said on social media on Saturday that she will not play at Wimbledon this summer due to an Achilles tendon injury.)
One of the projects under development includes cooking and Haitian society. “I watch a lot of food-related shows, cooking competitions, because I love to cook,” Ms. Osaka said with a laugh. The first project with Hana Kuma credits will be a New York Times Op-Doc about Patsy Mink, the first woman of color to be elected to Congress. Hana Kuma is also working on unspecified documentary content for Epix, a premium cable channel now owned by Amazon.
SpringHill, co-founded by Maverick Carter in 2020, will serve as financing, operations and production partner for Hana Kuma. SpringHill has approximately 200 employees and was valued at $725 million when selling a minority stake to raise capital last year. Operations include marketing consultancy, media and apparel division dedicated to empowering athletes. Another unit focuses on film and television production. There is also an events team.
“Only Naomi can relate to what we built,” Carter said.
SpringHill wants to replicate Hana Kuma’s deal with other athletes who have universal appeal. “We want to do a lot of this in the future,” Mr. Carter said, noting that discussions had begun with other sports stars.
It should be asked: Isn’t this just a new vanity bargain? For decades, old line studios have provided funding for star favorites to start affiliates, most of which never amounted to much — aside from keeping the star happy.
“Under the old system, those sometimes ended up being vanities,” Carter said. “But the goal here is to build Hana Kuma into a real company and a real brand.” He added that SpringHill’s focus on branded content sets it apart from older studios. Hana Kuma has been contracted by FTX, a cryptocurrency exchange, to produce branded content.
Mr. James said by phone that Ms. Osaka’s “agility and strength” on and off the field made her a good match for SpringHill, “which is there to empower athletic innovators.”
“We don’t take the situation we are in for granted to lend a helping hand, in this case to Naomi, to help enable her to do more wonderful things,” Mr. James said.
Ms. Osaka has 12 sponsors, including Nike, Mastercard, Louis Vuitton and Panasonic. Her agent and longtime business partner, Stuart Dugwid, said some may have been involved in Hana Kuma’s content. Mr. Duguid is one of the founders of Hana Kuma.
“We really want to lower that number and forge deeper relationships with those that continue,” said Mr. Duguid, referring to the corporate sponsors. “We want to make bigger swings and start companies, invest in companies, things that might have a greater outcome than if you had made a McDonald’s deal and got paid from year to year. What would really move the needle?”
Building a group of companies – while she was still in the middle of her tennis career – makes Ms. Osaka something of a pioneer among female athletes. At least, it will if you succeed.
“We haven’t seen any female athlete do anything like what we’re trying to achieve,” said Mr. Duguid. “Serena has done really well with her business. But she is at the end of her career and, you know, we are in the middle.” He was referring to tennis legend Serena Williams, whose venture capital firm, Serena Ventures, has raised a $111 million inaugural fund to invest in founders with diverse views.
Since she still plays tennis, Ms. Osaka will not participate in many production meetings. “But it’s all creative and it’s all strategic, so obviously it’s going to have Naomi’s flair, her style, her input,” said Mr. Duguid.