Sometimes Roger grows a beard or gets a posh haircut and fans take note. Sometimes his shirt has a collar, but for many years it didn’t. He never goes sleeveless like Rafa Nadal (“‘That’s not going to happen…” laughed Roger. “My arms are not as big as his are.”). One thing that was always the same? The Nike swoosh. Until one day it wasn’t. Shocking fans and oddsmakers, Roger Federer left Nike after 24 years for Uniqlo. Once it was revealed his new contract was a $300 million, 10-year deal that pays out regardless of when he retires, fans were maybe a little less shocked.
For a sport only watched by about 7% of the country, tennis stars are wealthy, well-loved and wildly courted for endorsements by brands from cars to cup noodles. As the old guard holds on to lucrative deals (and titles), the younger players are being wooed by marketers who value their brashness and digital presence on social media.
The Williams Sisters Change Tennis And Establish Lucrative Personal Brands
In 1997 Venus Williams told reporters, “I’m tall. I’m black. Everything’s different about me. Just face the facts.” Three years later she won the U.S. Open and went on to win six more Grand Slam titles. Like Muhammad Ali, Venus said she was the greatest even before she knew she was. Still playing at age 39, Venus is considered a hero of the sport — a fighter who helped secure equal prize money for women at Grand Slams, collecting the first check at Wimbledon that matched that of the winner on the men’s side. Venus Williams is a legend whose grace and goodness changed tennis for everyone, and particularly black women players.
Her sister Serena, possibly the most visible female athlete of all time, has won 23 majors and continues to make Grand Slam finals at the age of 37. The Williams sisters came into tennis like a hurricane, becoming superstars at a previously unprecedented level for women in sport.
Serena in particular has parlayed her incredible success on the court – $90 million in prize money, more than double her closest competitor, Venus – into endorsements with Nike, Beats, Lincoln, Wilson and Chase. Marketers frequently leverage Serena’s celebrity for brand partnerships that capitalize on more than just her skills on the tennis court, like her spots with Bumble empowering women “to make the first move” in their lives. With a net worth of more than $180 million, Serena is one of the highest earners in tennis. Her relationship with Nike has led to a number of inspiring commercials (and fashion choices) throughout their partnership. The “Dream Crazier” campaign this year garnered over 6 million views on YouTube and more than 28 million on Twitter.
“Over the past 20 years [Serena and Venus] have gone their own directions, established and carved out their own brands and they have very different personalities off of the court,” said Jonathan Jensen, a sports sponsorship expert and professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “Venus is an incredible champion in her own right, it just so happens that her sister is the sport's greatest champion."
The Rise Of The GOATs And Endorsement Deals As Steadfast As The Top 3
Novak Djokovic has won 14 Grand Slam titles. Rafael Nadal, 18. Roger Federer, 20. The three men have won the last 11 Grand Slams and are currently ranked one, two and three in the ATP, despite being well into their thirties, past when many other players would – and did – retire. Their closest competitors are wilting during five-setters and talks of retirement are shrugged off as conversations for another day — when the big three aren’t winning anymore perhaps.
According to Forbes, in the year prior to Wimbledon 2019, Roger Federer’s “$86 million in off-court earnings from partners like Credit Suisse, Mercedes-Benz and Rolex are well ahead of any other athlete.” Federer’s on-court earnings totaled only $7.4 million during the same time period, proving brands rely more heavily on Federer’s reputation as a well-respected athlete and possibly the greatest tennis player of all time, than they do on him always winning.
Novak Djokovic earned $30 million in endorsements last year. Like Federer, his switch to a different apparel sponsor (Lacoste) boosted his earnings significantly. Rounding out the top three is Rafael Nadal, who, like Serena Williams, continues to enjoy a lucrative relationship with Nike, bringing in $26 million from brand sponsorships.
Obviously many of these brands also work with younger, perhaps savvier stars, evolving and growing their brand profile in tennis, but leveraging the reliability of the top stars continues to make sense for brands who see them as a sure thing. This is particularly true for Nike, which, like Nike does, jumped on the tennis bandwagon early by signing a young John McEnroe. From McEnroe to Agassi to Nadal and Williams, the iconic legacy brand amplifies what makes an athlete great. Nike capitalizes on the personalities of their stars, usually sticking by their athletes whether starting out or (maybe) winding down.
Coco Gauff And Tennis Next Gen Are Inspiring Brands
Although still less popular than America’s other favorite sporting pastimes, tennis has seen attendance rise. In 2018, the U.S. Open, celebrating its 50th anniversary and after a $600 million renovation, hosted a record 828,798 spectators including fan week attendance.
Alex Restivo, Global Footwear Product Director at Nike, attributes some of this growing excitement to up-and-coming athletes, “The next generation grew up on social media, so they are more keen to let people in. Nick Kyrgios, Denis Shapovalov, Frances Tiafoe, Sloane Stephens are all great examples of athletes who bring their attitudes and personality out on court. We encourage this because an athlete opening up their personality leads to great product inspiration with rich storytelling.”
Rising stars like Coco Gauff, the 15-year old phenom who made a run at Wimbledon and is drawing excited crowds at the U.S. Open, already has a deal in place with New Balance. “Young stars have an opportunity to control their messaging and speak directly to their fans on social media. Coco is informed about her social presence, so she’s able to build a deeper connection with her fan base,” said Evan Zeder, Sports Marketing Manager of New Balance Tennis. “For this reason, it’s now more interesting to follow her journey.”
Like Kei Nishikori, 21-year old two-time Grand Slam champ Naomi Osaka is benefitting from Japan’s smaller pool of athletes, landing big contracts with Japanese and American brands. Osaka is one of only a few Nike stars who gets a bespoke kit for major events — Serena and Maria Sharapova are two others, both women as much celebrities as tennis stars. Celebrity and athlete is a path Osaka is beginning to embrace and one other young stars may find goes hand-in-hand with endorsements, titles and a strong digital presence through social media.
Thanks to players like the Williams sisters and trailblazers Althea Gibson and Billie Jean King, tennis is becoming a diverse sport, welcoming new faces and personalities, allowing brands and marketers to capitalize on the next gen, while still standing by the legends.