In eyes of sponsors, he's still No 1
Roger Federer is no longer the world's highest-ranked player, but when it comes to raking in the money he has few peers
Perhaps no sportsman alive has elicited such effusive testimonials as Roger Federer in the past few weeks. His poor summer, which included losses to players who would once have struggled to take a set off him, culminated in a fourth-round loss at the US Open. Instead of playing for the title, he became a devoted fan of his Swiss countryman Stanislas Wawrinka, who reached the semi-finals.
Come what may, most consider Federer among the greatest tennis players, with the most grand slam men's singles titles (17) and weeks ranked No1 (302). While Federer's prowess on the court is undisputed, his ability to monetise his career has been light years ahead of any tennis player yet.
Forbes ranks Federer's wealth at US$400 million. He has earned a record US$77 million in career winnings since he turned professional in 1998, but the bulk of his wealth has arisen from a flurry of sponsorships from companies like Rolex, Nike, Gillette, Moet & Chandon and Credit Suisse.
Federer has slid to No6 in the rankings, but he is the second-highest-paid athlete in the world, ahead of Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, and just behind Tiger Woods.
While Federer's competition on the court has stiffened, his competition off the court is fading. David Beckham and Michael Schumacher have retired, and Bryant is nearing the end of his career. Lance Armstrong has fallen from grace, and Woods has alienated a good number of fans.
Federer remains the best bet around. Fans have voted him their favourite player on the ATP Tour for 10 straight years. He never had a major injury during a decade in which he ranked among the top three players, meaning that he reached the last stages in most major tournaments, keeping him in front of television viewers and in the news media.
Tennis is attractive to sponsors because its fans have high disposable incomes and the season is almost year-round. Another plus is its global reach. Federer can advertise for Nike or Gillette anywhere. A fan in Beijing summed up Federer's popularity in China by saying: "He has a big nose, and a nice smile."
The Swiss element is a factor. People associate Switzerland with reliability, precision, modesty and perfection, and Federer embodies all those qualities. "It's as though his country's neutrality makes him a global citizen," said Tony Godsick, his longtime agent.
Federer is also associated with style and class, so he is favoured by price-insensitive luxury goods like Rolex.
Although he is a national hero in Switzerland and welcomed as though he were at home wherever he goes, few people seem to know who Federer is. He has always been difficult to read and is seldom disposed to offer any window into his soul. Faultlessly urbane and multilingual, Federer gives the media and his fans everything and nothing.
Sponsors love Federer's evasive armour because it improves predictability and duration. He is surrounded (and protected) by a finely tuned machine, among the most discreet and professional in tennis. Nothing is left to chance. What looks natural is meticulously planned and smoothly executed. After winning his seventh title at Wimbledon last year, he slipped on a vintage-looking tennis sweater and a golden Rolex that gleamed as he hoisted the trophy for 870 million TV viewers from 198 countries to see.
Godsick said a few years ago that Federer's success and performance on the court were what ultimately determined his business success. "Firms always want to be associated with the best, and Roger is the best," he said.
But what happens when he's not the best? Since the beginning of the 2010 season, Federer has won only two grand slam events and made three finals appearances. He has won only one tournament this year. There might be a growing disconnect between Federer's results and his marketing machinery. Precautions are under way. Federer plays in fewer tournaments, focusing on the most important and lucrative ones. As the president of the ATP Tour Player Council since 2008, he has successfully lobbied for significant prize money increases at the four grand slam events.
More important, his endorsement contracts are long term and thought to continue even if he loses his top standing. Nike, for example, agreed in 2008 to pay him US$160 million over 10 years.
Tennis career trajectories tend to ascend gradually and descend precipitously, with the slope most slippery at the inflection point. The lower Federer drops in the rankings, the more difficult the draw and the greater the chance of losing during the earlier rounds. That means less time on TV and fewer photo opportunities to show his sponsors' wares.
History is replete with examples of sports stars who hung on for too long. Michael Jordan was an earthbound Washington Wizard for two seasons. Willie Mays had to be dragged almost kicking and screaming into retirement.
Federer has consistently made it clear that he hopes to play for several more years, and he has proved experts wrong in the past.
Financial incentives may tempt Federer to lumber on. After all, it is hard to land a job that pays US$65 million a year just to show up. Federer has become who he is because he has always behaved with impeccable dignity. His combination of dominance and decency has made him special in the hearts of his fans - and his sponsors.
The true test of Federer's legacy will be whether he can continue to inspire the world of tennis once he leaves the court, in a manner that, say, Pele has done for soccer. Federer's foundation has focused on projects in Africa (his mother is from South Africa), and he participated in a popular exhibition tour in South America last winter.
More of that would be genius worth paying for.
The New York Times