With more Grand Slam titles than any other man, the numbers support Roger Federer’s claim to be the greatest male tennis player of all time. Having won 20 Grand Slam titles wearing Nike it should come as no surprise that when the Swiss stepped out onto Centre Court at Wimbledon this week for his first-round match against Dusan Lajovic wearing Uniqlo kit, 65% of individuals commenting on social media were in a state of shock.
This surprise is testament to the partnership that Nike and Federer had developed over the past 20 years. As Tiger Woods represented Nike in golf, Federer was their talisman in tennis which was a brand association that stretched beyond the sport’s fans. The creation of the RF logo allowed both parties to tap into each other’s strengths and work together to grow their presence and market share within tennis.
In a 10-year deal worth a reported $300m (£227m), despite the initial shock and reaction of fans to the Uniqlo announcement earlier this week, I find it hard to view the on-court stunt as anything but a success.
Arguably, the success of any launch is determined by how many people are impacted by it; given that Uniqlo was trending on Twitter worldwide just minutes after the announcement, the results speak for themselves. Making the announcement on-court rather than in the build-up to the tournament was an innovative approach and enabled Uniqlo to harness the shock factor, maximising its media impact both across traditional outlets and through social media. Some might say it was the perfect example of a "less is more" campaign.
Our analysis found that 32% of fans commented on the fact that it must have been a tough decision for Federer to leave Nike. A large proportion of them (62%) thought it was a brave of him to train in Nike kit in the build up to the competition, only for him to then walk out onto Centre Court wearing Uniqlo.
A further 25% of fans expressed concern over the long-term commitment made by Uniqlo. Despite being in the twilight of his playing career Federer is a brand in himself away from the court. Elsewhere, Nike’s share price dropped after Federer switched to Uniqlo, with commentators calling it a major change in the sports sponsorship world. Some even suggested Federer as a brand could actually be stronger than Nike.
You only have to look at other sports for proof of the continued impact that a truly global sports star can have away from their sport, with the likes of David Beckham and Shaquille O’Neal remaining firmly in the spotlight after retirement. Uniqlo has clearly identified not just with Federer’s sporting and financial success but also with the attributes and values that separate the Federer brand from other athletes. That said, I wouldn’t say that Uniqlo have overlooked his continuing on-court success as part of their decision.
With Novak Djokovic switching his apparel sponsorship to Lacoste in 2017, it was important for Uniqlo to partner with a player that is instantly recognisable across markets and transcends the sport to widen its reach. While Kei Nishikori’s skill on the court is undeniable, outside Asia his off-court brand is comparatively untapped. Federer, however, is someone who can legitimise the global apparel of a brand’s tennis/sports range instantaneously, and act as a figurehead in advertising, PR and marketing strategy around the world.
If Federer manages to find a way of retaining the RF brand from Nike it will be very interesting to see where consumer loyalty lies, and whether Uniqlo have pulled off a masterstroke by inheriting a legion of loyal Federer fans from the largest sportswear brand on the planet.
Richard Payne is director of Sports Marketing Surveys