Back in 1994, a little known Roger Federer signed his first contract with sportswear giant Nike.
Sporting brands the world over are always on the lookout for the next talent and while there were signs the 13-year-old Swiss could hit a tennis ball true-er than most in his early years of development, there were no guarantees he would become the next big thing.
You could argue sponsoring an up-and-coming athlete is small change for a power brand boasting the financial clout of the swoosh, the tick. But, by all accounts, it is typically an all-round investment in an emerging star’s sporting pedigree and personality, and in Federer’s case, it paid off significantly.
Fast-forward nearly two decades and Nike have been on court with the soon-to-be 37-year-old for every one of his record 20 Grand Slam successes and back catalogue of other glories, becoming synonymous with a sporting great who boasts the same kind of commercial power as Michael Jordan and his Air Jordan shoe and David Beckham and his long-term association with adidas.
It will, therefore, seem strange not to see Federer in his iconic Nike headband anymore, for instance, should the eight-time Wimbledon champion, as reported, end his lengthy affiliation with the giant brand.
Federer and his close inner circle are precision-like and perfectionists when it comes down to managing his schedule, endorsements, off-court commitments and public image.
As such, that would point to the fact that they were well aware and happy to let his Nike deal run down and expire on March 1 of this year.
Given Federer’s loyalty to long-term sponsors such as Wilson, Rolex, Lindt, Mercedes-Benz, NetJets, Moet and Chandon and more, he is not one to change suddenly on impulse and very much picks and chooses carefully who he works with. Tennis players are superstitious, too, and usually dislike change.
Sure, those names have made it worth his while – helping Federer to amass around $65 million per year in sponsorship money off-court – placing him seventh in Forbes’ recent sporting rich list, with Nike accounting for around $8m of that per annum.
But, while you expect finance is a factor in a potential decision to pursue an even more lucrative deal away from Nike, it feels like there is more to this than meets the eye.
It is purely speculating, but perhaps, Federer wanted greater longevity with the brand post-playing career while Nike’s remit may have been to reinvest back into what is like a sponsor’s scouting system. Ingenuity and foresight helped, for example, Under Armour when they snapped up the likes of Anthony Joshua, Steph Curry and Jordan Spieth.
When it comes to brands, staying ahead of the game is important, but so is loyalty.
Federer, who has still been wearing Nike in Stuttgart this week as he prepares to make his return on grass for the first time in three months, may feel it is time to move forward and pursue a new chapter.
It should be said, a new Nike contract is not out of the question and Federer has revealed he will shed more light on the story soon, seeming relaxed and nonplussed about the whole thing when responding to a question about the situation.
If he did chose to move on, the Fed would however lose the rights to his famous ‘RF’ logo, which is owned by Nike – and certainly a symbol his fans know and love worldwide.
Uniqlo – the Japanese designer which has previously sponsored Novak Djokovic – has been touted as the likely brand in which Federer could sign with on a decade-long deal worth around $40m per year – over four times what Nike were paying.
If he did take a step in that direction, you would think, he would wear their clothing for the first time at Wimbledon next month. However, the one sticking point is that Uniqlo do not make sports shoes, meaning Federer would have to seek another footwear company too.
That said, given Uniqlo’s pulling power in East Asia and with the 2020 Olympics in Toyko just over two years away, getting Federer on board now is likely to turn out to be a smart move.
When you take into account the golden period of success he has enjoyed since the beginning of 2017 – in which he has won three Grand Slam titles and became the world’s oldest No.1 – a swansong at the Games is looking like a distinct possibility.
It would not only give the Swiss one more shot at the coveted Olympic single’s gold, the one major missing medal from his collection, but the timing of the event towards the end of July 2020 is perfect. Federer could play potentially a final Wimbledon, bow out there, and then have one last stab on the hard courts in Japan as a poster boy for what is set to be an electric Olympics.
Uniqlo, or whoever it may be, would be wise to try and cash in on what you wouldn’t rule out being a memorable career finale. After all, there are few better than Federer at devising the perfect script.
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