Emma Raducanu has had a whirlwind year. Since making tennis history in 2021, becoming the youngest female British player to win the US Open, she has signed a number of lucrative sponsorship deals as her profile continues to rise. HSBC was the most recent addition to her endorsement portfolio of brands which include Nike, British Airways, Porsche, Evian, Dior, Tiffany’s, and Vodafone.
12 months on, following a less successful US Open in 2022, Strategy Director at Cake, James Masters, explores how the sports industry has reacted and the lessons it can learn…
Last year, in another publication, I wrote: “Emma Raducanu could redefine what it means to be a tennis superstar”.
It was simply a passing comment in a bigger piece about the evolution of women’s sport – nothing more, nothing less.
However, in the week after her exit from the US Open, I’ve been reflecting upon that statement. With a sense of guilt.
Not because Emma won’t necessarily ‘redefine’ (whatever that exactly means!) tennis superstardom in the years to come. Nor that I am writing her off to succeed in the future… Not that I have any authority to have an opinion either way.
Rather, because I – like so many others in our industry – jumped on the Raducanu brand bandwagon, with abandon. Joining the unthinking choir of voices hyping her up, the architects of the stratospheric sense of expectation surrounding the young talent.
Here is someone, the current BBC Sports Personality of the Year no less, who is immensely attractive to the brands we work for and represent.
I don’t need to tell you that. You’ll have seen her scoring perfect marks on ambassador filters. You’ll have seen her outshine others on talent shortlists. You’ll have dropped her into conversations and, like me, perhaps, heralded her as the fresh-faced saviour of the game.
Had IMG not limited her to 18 sponsor days a year, said Max Eisenbud, her agent on The Sports Desk podcast in June, she could have “done 50 days of shoots”. And despite the major endorsement deals coming thick and fast, her team apparently “left millions of dollars off the table”. I believe it.
I also believe Emma when she says – as she did in March – that partnership commitments haven’t had a negative impact on her performance or commitment.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that Emma shouldn’t have taken on the sponsorships. Who wouldn’t have? The partners she works with are the cream of the crop. Big, exciting, meaningful brands. All of whom, I am sure, are respectful of her schedule, and align with her values and passions.
This is a comment on our responsibility as an industry for our role in rapidly building hype around an extraordinary, but developing, talent.
Our role in forcing a young person, fresh from defeat in the Miami Open, to have to defend their ambassador deals in front of the world’s media.
Our role in heaping pressure upon someone who has boldly spoken about their own mental health. And too in the context of the well-publicised challenges faced by Naomi Osaka, Ben Stokes and Simone Biles, to name but a few.
Our role in creating the condition of extreme expectation that has led to social media pile-ons and headlines like: “Emma Raducanu crashes out of US Open” [the i newspaper] and “Emma Raducanu, the light cannot be seen from the bottom of the well” [Tennis World].
We are not alone, of course. We are part of an ecosystem of news outlets, content creators, and public figures.
But we should take this moment to reflect on how we, as an industry, respond to emerging talent, and our responsibility to protect the very people that fuel our work.
We must be accountable. We must put steps in place. We must think beyond our marketing challenges and carefully consider the human contexts that our work intersects.
If you’re looking for a neat and tidy solution to round this piece off nicely, I am afraid that I don’t have one.
The answers will lie in the thoughts we have whilst escaping our desk for a cup of tea. In the discussions we have with our colleagues and clients.
It must be a collective endeavour; spanning governing bodies and rightsholders, agencies and brands, agents and the talent that they represent.
This is a call to action for every single one of us.