With her first Grand Slam victory, the 19-year-old American phenom is poised to cash in on her tennis success—and winning personality.
Coco Gauff found herself compared to Serena Williams before she was even a teenager, and just as companies once did with the GOAT, a long list of brands has followed her development as a tennis and marketing star with great interest. They watched as the American prodigy reached the top of the world junior rankings at 14, and as she won her first pro tournament title a year later. They applauded her stirring first-round victory over Venus Williams at Wimbledon in 2019, and this summer, they marveled at her triumphs at the WTA Tour’s Washington, D.C., and Cincinnati events.
All the while, her representatives at talent agency Team8 and her parents—father Corey, who coached her, and mother Candi, who homeschooled her—have preached patience. Turning down numerous commercial and media opportunities, they cut down on the distractions so Gauff could focus on her tennis, develop as a person and avoid the burnout that has torched past phenoms. That philosophy has also kept her sponsor portfolio relatively small so they could strike at just the right moment—after a breakthrough victory.
With a 2-6, 6-3, 6-2 win over new world No. 1 Aryna Sabalenka in Saturday’s U.S. Open women’s singles final, the 19-year-old Gauff’s moment has arrived.
Her first Grand Slam title—after she fell one match short at the 2022 French Open—comes with a $3 million winner’s check, pushing her prize money to $5.6 million this year and $11.1 million across her five-year pro career. Gauff has also made an estimated $12 million from endorsements, appearance fees and other business endeavors over the last 12 months (before taxes and agents’ fees). But while she already comes in at No. 7 on Forbes’ list of the highest-paid tennis players, her earnings will surely reach a new level in the very near future.
“If you’re able to win a Grand Slam, it certainly takes you from, let’s say, a low-A endorser to something that is A-plus or bigger,” Joe Favorito, a veteran marketing consultant and former executive with the WTA Tour and the U.S. Tennis Association, told Forbes last month.
Consider the case of Britain’s Emma Raducanu, who set off a marketing bonanza when she won the 2021 U.S. Open at age 18. That flood of endorsement deals, including Dior, HSBC and Porsche, has her earning an estimated $15 million off the court this year—an impressive haul for a player whose major moment came only after she fought her way out of the qualifying draw as a relative unknown. Gauff, by contrast, entered this U.S. Open ranked No. 6 in singles and will ascend to No. 3 on Monday; she will also be tied for No. 1 in the WTA’s new doubles rankings.
“Winning is first and foremost the most important” factor in the tennis marketing equation, acknowledges Gauff’s agent at Team8, Alessandro Barel Di Sant Albano, and a jump in the rankings or a Grand Slam title can unlock sponsor bonuses. But Gauff has more going for her than just her on-court exploits. Unlike, say, her opponent in Saturday’s final—Belarus’ Sabalenka—the American Gauff represents a country with a strong economy and a long tennis tradition, giving her more sponsors to choose from. And her timing is impeccable on a couple of fronts. Marketers are eagerly looking for the sport’s next superstar to fill the void left by Serena Williams’ apparent retirement at 40 last year. At the same time, following a U.S. Open that celebrated 50 years of equal pay for men and women and with women’s sports on the rise more broadly, “corporations are very cognizant of making sure they’re spending equal, or getting to that point, with their sponsorship dollars,” says Lisa Delpy Neirotti, associate professor of sports management at George Washington University.
Meanwhile, companies are placing a greater emphasis on social and cause marketing than ever before, and “athletes who stood out and stood up in tennis” have become “tremendously valuable for brands,” Favorito says. Few in recent years have been as outspoken as Gauff, who drew widespread praise for her speech at a Black Lives Matter rally in 2020, made a powerful statement against gun violence at the 2022 French Open and publicly sympathized with the climate protesters who interrupted her U.S. Open semifinal on Thursday.
Gauff also has a charmingly goofy personality, writing in her WTA bio that she “does not have any pets but has been trying to convince her mom to get a dog” and saying in a post-match interview on Thursday that she had watched four or five episodes of anime series My Hero Academia that afternoon (and would be watching more in her hotel room that night). “Athletes are trying to become more and more approachable to their fans,” Barel Di Sant Albano told Forbes last month, “and that relatability comes so naturally to Coco.”
On top of deals with New Balance and racket maker Head, Gauff currently has long-term partnerships with six other brands, after Baker Tilly, Bose and UPS joined her stable this year. But she still has plenty of industries she could expand into with her sponsors, including cars and sports drinks, two common categories in the tennis world. Barel Di Sant Albano stresses that the goal is to find “great strategic partners that are organic to you,” citing Gauff’s deal with Barilla as an example. “Coco loves pasta—she eats pasta as a pregame meal every single meal,” he says. “And it just seemed like something that could be a natural fit rather than, I don’t know, a B2B software business.”
Here again, Gauff can look to Williams as a model. The 41-year-old legend, who won her first Grand Slam 24 years ago at the U.S. Open, earned more than $340 million off the court and now ranks among America’s richest self-made women with a net worth of $290 million, according to Forbes estimates.
But Gauff will be blazing her own trail.
“Anytime that you’re compared to Serena, it’s definitely flattering because obviously she paved the way for so many young women to dream big,” Barel Di Sant Albano told Forbes last month. “But I think Coco would be the first one to tell you that I’m the first Coco and I want to leave my mark in my own way.”