"I love that young girls can now look to professional soccer as a realistic sporting career," the tennis champion says

By Jason Duaine Hahn
January 28, 2021 05:25 AM
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COURTESY NAOMI OSAKA
| Credit: COURTESY NAOMI OSAKA

Tennis champion Naomi Osaka is making sure more women have the opportunity to excel in sports.

The 23-year-old now has a financial stake in National Women's Soccer League team the North Carolina Courage, making her the first investor to join owner Steve Malik since he took reins of the franchise in 2017. The move, says Osaka, is part of her goal to bolster women's sports throughout the country.

"I've been wanting to get involved with the NWSL for a while, to promote women's sports and also as a business investment because I can see it growing rapidly," Osaka, who is overseas preparing for the Australian Open, tells PEOPLE. "The commissioner of the league introduced me to a few teams and after lengthy conversations, I decided the Courage was the best fit for me."

Osaka says North Carolina emerged as a front runner for a number of reasons, including diversity among players and their success on the field. They most recently won the NWSL championship in 2019.

"First and foremost, I really like the people running the club from top to bottom," she explains. "They align so closely with my values and interests — promoting women's sports through grassroots and using the team as a platform to do good in the community."

Credit: COURTESY NAOMI OSAKA

"I love that young girls can now look to professional soccer as a realistic sporting career," Osaka continues. "When I was young it felt like tennis — and maybe golf — was the only option."

Osaka is not the only person to take notice of soccer's growing popularity in the United States. In July, a group of investors led by actress Natalie Portman were awarded the rights to bring a new NWSL team to Los Angeles. According to CNBC, the league broke viewership records for games in 2020, with television ratings up 300 percent as of December.

While Osaka does not plan to be in the front office helping to handle day-to-day operations, she will take on a "strategic advisor" role with the Courage following the investment.

"We have some plans to do some really unique and cool stuff together — I plan to be involved as more of a strategic advisor on things like growing the brand, promoting women's sports, encouraging the next generation and tackling social issues," Osaka explains.

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Osaka — whose father is Haitian and mother is Japanese — has helped to draw attention to police brutality and racism over the past year following the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and other Black Americans. She hopes to encourage others on the Courage to use their voices to call for change.

"Athletes have always been forces for change, I just think that in the past years it's become more apparent and people are noticing more," she says. "If you look back on Muhammad Ali and Billie Jean King, they were really paving the way for all of us athletes today to stand up for what we believe in. I am really honored to be a part of what I hope is the norm moving forward."