Eight out of ten of the world's highest-paid female athletes are tennis players. According to Forbes' annual rankings released on Wednesday, PV Sindhu has broken into that clique at no.7 with her total earnings touching $8.5 million, of which $8 million are by way of endorsements alone. That works out to $163,000 a week. Barring Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova, the other athletes ranked ahead of Sindhu -- Caroline Wozniacki ($6m), Sloane Stephens ($5.5m), Garbine Muguruza ($5.5m) and Venus williams ($6M) -- have lower earnings from endorsements.
The only other non-tennis name in the list is former U.S. race car driver Daniela Patrick at no.9 (total earnings: $7.5m). Sindhu is also the only Asian since South Korean figure skater Kim Yuna in 2014 to step into this crème de la crème club of hotly-chased, money-spinning, face-of-billboards, elite athletes.
The world no.3 herself couldn't be more pleased. "I'm absolutely thrilled to have been featured in this list. To be honest, bringing laurels to my country has always been my top-most priority and such accolades are by-products. My agency Baseline Ventures has done an amazing job in building my brand and I don't think I can thank them enough," Sindhu told ESPN.
Her earnings, this means, are even higher than current WTA No. 1 Simona Halep. The US Open top seed is ranked eighth, with total earnings of $7.7 million ($6.2m prize money, $1.5 endorsements). Also, what Sindhu earns through endorsements is third-highest behind Serena ($18m) and Maria Sharapova ($9.5m).
So what it is that makes her this colossal brand? Success, of course is the most obvious answer. But there's more. "As a brand, consistency is her biggest USP," says Vishal Jaison, co-founder of Baseline Ventures, which manages Sindhu's commercial commitments. "Even after her Rio Olympics silver, she's kept at it, winning three Super Series finals, making finals of big events regularly, including two World Championships."
Much of it also has to do with her visibility. A view that author and leading ad professional Santosh Desai whole-heartedly endorses. "The problem with certain sports is that major events happen far too infrequently and so the momentum built by one big win does not translate into a consistent trickle of news about the athlete. In that sense, the badminton circuit is a lot more visible and as a country too we're tuning into it a lot more. What also strikes a chord is that her performances are brave, powerful and dominating. It helps convert her victories into something more."
Not too long ago though, despite being a World Championship bronze medal, few had heard of Sindhu and fewer still were obliging of turning her into the face of their brand. "It was 2014," Jaison says. "We'd just set up our company and sensing Sindhu's potential, she was the first athlete we'd got on board. Initially it was a struggle to convince these business heads and CEOs that Sindhu was the one for the future. They'd revert to us usually either asking who she was -- and mind you, she was 18 and had already won a World Championship medal then -- or offering a real pittance."
Today, Sindhu endorses around 12 brands which include Gatorade, Panasonic, Bridgestone and Reckett Benckiser among others. while other fairly successful names like Kidambi Srikanth, Smriti Mandhana, Manika Batra and Rohit Sharma barely have a fraction of that number. So the gulf is massive. And the unquestionable inflection point was Rio 2016
Ad guru and filmmaker Mahesh Mathai sees her unbridled rise into a veritable brand rooted in the 'new Indian psyche'. "The first great news is this magnitude of popularity of a non-cricket, individual sportsperson in India. I think she is part of the new Indian psyche that feels that it can excel and win at top-level international sport today. We are looking for stars in India, for heroes to follow, and she is a living example. Her brand is her competitive play, and the style she brings to it. And of course, winning."
"I think Sindhu has reached that point where unless she has a string of bad performances her brand stays unaffected." Santosh Desai, author and ad professional
In June this year, Floyd Mayweather topped Forbes' top-100 highest-paid athletes list in the world for the fourth time in seven years. Much of it had to do with his $275 million payday boxing match against Conor McGregor. No female athletes made the cut in the testosterone-heavy list. Just for perspective, Mayweather's total earnings ran into $285million ($275m in winnings, $10m in endorsements) while Serena who leads the highest-paid female athletes' list is estimated to have a total earning of $18.1 million ($62,000 prize money, $18 million endorsements).
Former badminton national champion Aparna Popat calls attention to the subtler facts in Sindhu's breakthrough. "What makes this remarkable is that it's an Asian-dominated sport with not the kind of big money of West or U.S.-centric sports that usually make such lists. You have to remember that all of this is without even Sindhu becoming a world no.1 or winning a World Championship title. It just shows how big a sports personality she's worldwide today."
Brand Sindhu, Desai adds, has in a way reached a tipping point beyond which interest doesn't need to begin from zero base. In that sense, there's always a resident level of interest and even relatively small ways of staying in the news can have a cascading effect. "I think Sindhu has reached that point where unless she has a string of bad performances her brand stays unaffected."
And all of this, senior sports communications professional Sangeeta Kuriakos, believes is only the beginning of something special for both Sindhu and her kind.
"Sindhu brings to any brand core attributes like honesty, high performance, success and being a go-getter. Even though what she has accomplished is fabulous, her story doesn't end here. Not for her, not for other female athletes in India."