Roger Federer’s status as the top earner in tennis is safe, sponsorship consultants say, even after he slipped to his lowest ranking in more than a decade.
The holder of a record 17 Grand Slam men’s singles championships will begin his attempt to end an 18-month major title drought Jan. 13 at the Australian Open in Melbourne. Last year, he failed to reach the final of any of the four Grand Slam tournaments for the first time since 2002.
It’s a different story with his finances. According to Forbes magazine, the 32-year-old Swiss player earned $71.5 million in the 12 months through May. Only Tiger Woods made more among athletes, with $78.1 million, Forbes said, while Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray -- who combined to win all the Grand Slam titles in 2013 -- earned a total of $68.2 million.
“Even though his best playing days may be behind him, he’s going to be a force in the game,” Nigel Currie of London-based sports and entertainment marketing agency brandRapport said in an interview. “Federer will have earnings powers long after he’s retired. I don’t see Nadal and Djokovic catching up.”
Federer, who is sixth in the ATP world rankings, dropped to seventh on three occasions last year. He holds the men’s record for the most weeks as the top-ranked player -- 302 -- including 237 weeks in a row between 2004 and 2008.
Such dominance allowed the right-hander to build a sponsorship profile unmatched in tennis history. Andre Agassi of the U.S., the closest male rival in financial terms, earned $25 million annually in endorsements at his peak, Forbes said.
Federer earned $65 million in sponsorship revenue during its last money-ranking period, according to the magazine. Spain’s Nadal earned $21 million, while Djokovic of Serbia brought in $14 million and Murray of the U.K. got $8 million.
British bookmaker William Hill Plc says Federer has 20-1 odds of winning the Australian Open, the first major of the season. That means a successful $1 bet would bring in $20 plus the original wager. Those odds put him behind 5-6 favorite Djokovic, who has won the last three titles in Melbourne, while top-ranked Nadal is an 11-4 chance. Murray is 8-1 and Argentina’s Juan Martin Del Potro has 12-1 odds, the bookmaker says.
Tim Crow, chief executive officer of London-based sponsorship agency Synergy, says Federer’s brand soared after his management secured U.S. endorsement deals -- the most notable with Nike Inc. (NKE:US), the world’s largest sporting-goods company, and Gillette, owned by Procter & Gamble Co. (PG:US)
“He never looked back,” Crow says. “Unless one of the others cracks Madison Avenue, which Federer managed to do, I don’t think they can narrow the gap.”
Federer and his agent Tony Godsick left management agency IMG Worldwide Inc. in 2012. They set up a new agency last month to represent athletes including Del Potro.
Federer has struggled recently at the four majors -- Wimbledon and the Australian, French and U.S. opens. He won his first Grand Slam at Wimbledon in 2003, and between 2004 and 2010 he claimed a further 15 out of the 28 Grand Slam events staged. Since then he has won only one, at Wimbledon in 2012.
“Even though his ranking has declined, his relevance has not,” said Jordan Schlachter of Dallas-based Marketing Arm, a U.S. sports sponsorship agency. “If he falls out of the top 10 and starts losing in the first round of tournaments, he might become a little less relevant. Getting to the semifinals of a Grand Slam is still very good exposure for his sponsors.”
Federer, Djokovic and Agassi are tied for the most Australian Open singles titles, four apiece, since the professional tennis era began in 1968.
The Swiss player will play 134th-ranked Australian James Duckworth in the first round in Melbourne, while men’s No. 1 Nadal also faces a home player in Bernard Tomic. Djokovic, ranked second, is up against Slovakian Lukas Lacko and No. 3 David Ferrer of Spain will play Colombian Alejandro Gonzalez. Murray, ranked fourth, faces Japan’s Go Soeda and No. 5 Del Potro will play against one of the yet-to-be-determined qualifiers. The top six players’ tournament seedings match their current ATP ranking.
In the women’s draw, top-ranked Serena Williams of the U.S. will play Australian Ashleigh Barty, while title-holder Victoria Azarenka, the women’s No. 2, faces Sweden’s Johanna Larsson.
Last year, Federer won one tournament, a grass event in Halle, Germany. Nadal won 10 titles last year, including the French and U.S. opens, while Djokovic took seven, including the Australian Open, and Murray won at Wimbledon. Federer remains the favorite with sponsors, though, and with spectators -- he won the ATP Fans’ Favorite award for the 11th straight year.
“I don’t think anyone will emulate what he’s done,” brandRapport’s Currie says. “He’s managed to create dominance in the sport for a long period of time. People talk about him as maybe the best player ever. That’s quite an accolade and that’s quite a thing to trade off.
“Nadal has been a bit stop-start because of injuries and Djokovic hasn’t really gone out of his way to market himself in the same way,” Currie added.
Federer added six-time Grand Slam champion Stefan Edberg, a serve-and-volley specialist, to his coaching team last month and will play with a bigger racket this season.
“Why stop so early?” Federer said in November after being eliminated from the season-ending ATP Tour Finals. “I have many other things to do in my life than play tennis, but because I can still choose, I pick to play. As long as I have this choice, I’ll keep on playing.”
Federer’s status as the highest earner in tennis may last beyond his playing career. His deal with Nike, worth more than $10 million a year according to Forbes, has another four years to run. He gets $6 million annually from Moet & Chandon, owned by LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton SA, in an agreement that expires in 2017. His contract with Credit Suisse Group AG is worth $2 million a year until 2019, while he makes the same figure from racket-maker Wilson in a lifetime deal. His agreement with watch brand Rolex, worth $1.5 million annually, expires in 2016.
“Federer is tennis,” Schlachter says. “There are only a few athletes in the history of sport who have ever affected television ratings.
“People watched boxing because Muhammad Ali was fighting. People used to watch basketball because Michael Jordan was playing. If Tiger Woods is playing on a Sunday, golf ratings shoot to the moon. I think Federer is the same.
“It will take a significant passing of his statistics to make people feel like somebody else is tennis.”
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