Li Na Nears Sharapova With $42 Million in Endorsement Contracts

China's Li Na
Li Na, the first Chinese player to win a major tennis title. Photographer: Feng Li/Getty Images

Li Na, the first Chinese player to win a major tennis title, is set to become the world’s second-highest earning female athlete after signing endorsement contracts worth at least $42 million.

The 29-year-old, who became Asia’s first Grand Slam singles champion at the French Open in June, has since signed seven deals worth between $2 million and $3.5 million each annually, her agent Max Eisenbud said in an interview. All seven contracts are for a period of three years.

“We could do five more endorsement deals but she just doesn’t have the time,” said Eisenbud, a vice president at Coral Gables, Florida-based IMG Tennis who signed Li in November

2009. “It’s incredible.”

The endorsements may make Li the second-highest earning female athlete in the world, behind former Wimbledon champion Maria Sharapova. The Russian, who is also represented by Eisenbud, makes about $24 million a year from prize money and endorsements, according to Forbes.

Li, who has won $3.1 million in prize money so far this season, became the first Chinese player to reach a Grand Slam final at January’s Australian Open. Her success has made her a household name in the world’s fastest-growing major economy.

While Chinese women had won Olympic gold medals and Grand Slam titles in doubles, Li broke their singles drought when she defeated Italy’s Francesca Schiavone in Paris. Her victory was watched by 116 million viewers in China, according to the WTA Tour, which runs the elite women’s circuit.

Car Pact

Since Roland Garros, Li has signed deals with German carmaker Daimler AG’s Mercedes-Benz brand and Chinese insurance company Taikang Life Insurance Co., Eisenbud said.

“It was hard to set the price” after Li’s triumph in Paris, Eisenbud said. “We had to change it a lot.”

She’ll wear the Mercedes-Benz and Taikang logos as patches on the sleeves of her outfit, made by her clothing and footwear sponsor, Nike Inc. She is the only tennis player allowed to do so by Nike, the world’s largest sporting-goods company.

Eisenbud said the remainder of her new endorsement deals, which include two “blue-chip global brands” and a Chinese real estate company which will help the player build a tennis academy in her home country, will be announced later this year.

“Her appeal is that she has the ability to crack the Chinese market, which is such an important and hard market for American and European brands to get into, or to establish a foothold,” Nigel Currie, director of London-based sports marketing agency brandRapport, said in an interview. “The holy grail of marketing on a global scale is to crack the Chinese market.”

Earlier Sponsors

Li’s history making run in Melbourne at the start of the season had already led to sponsorship deals with Swiss watch brand Rolex Group, U.S.-based ice-cream maker Haagen-Dazs and Chinese website Sina.

Until Li’s success, the world’s second-highest earning female sports star had been 13-time Grand Slam singles champion Serena Williams. The American’s annual earnings have dropped to $12 million from $20.2 million the year before, according to a Forbes estimate in May, as illness and injury kept her sidelined for almost a year.

Fellow Nike tennis players and IMG clients, including men’s Grand Slam record holder Roger Federer, French Open champion Rafael Nadal and triple Grand Slam winner Sharapova, aren’t allowed to wear any other endorsement on their outfits apart from the Nike swoosh.

After losing in the second round of Wimbledon to German wild card Sabine Lisicki, Li took a break from tennis to recover at home. She’ll return to the WTA Tour on Aug. 8 at the Rogers Cup in Toronto, a tune-up event for the U.S. Open, which starts at the end of the month. Li’s best result in New York was reaching the quarterfinals in 2009.

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