Opinion

Tennis stars: Why marketability can be a blessing and curse for today's top players

9 min read

29 June 2015

The winners of this year's Wimbledon singles finals will both take home £1.88m, but endorsement deals still make up a considerable chunk of the top players' annual earnings. Having commercial appeal is important to any player looking to up their financial status – but it can also be something of a distraction.

With Wimbledon now under way, tennis fans from all over the world will be tuning in and waiting to see who will walk away with the prize money, a trophy and the prestige which comes with winning the oldest tennis tournament in the world.

It won’t just be tennis fans eagerly keeping tabs on the tournament’s progress. Brands will be watching as it unfolds, to see which of current sponsorship picks are upping their endorsement potential – and which up-and-coming players could have impressive future marketability.

It’s a tricky quality to manage. When Novak Djokovic began unsettling the long-established top two of Rafa Nadal and Roger Federer, he also caused some commercial concern. Of the three, he arguably has the most entertaining personality off the court – a wicked sense of humour nabbed him “The Djoker” as a nickname, while his unerring impersonations of everyone from Maria Sharapova to Lleyton Hewitt went down a treat with crowds.

Yet, in his early ascent to the top, he hadn’t won over tennis fans with his style – while Federer had the artistry and grace, Nadal was tenacious and energetic – and his extensive celebrations were sometimes seen as over the top. It wasn’t helped by a more vocal box than his rivals – his mother famously told reporters that “the king is dead, long live the king” after her son knocked Federer out of the Australian Open on his way to winning it.

In 2011, Nielsen provided research that assessed athletes’ overall endorsement potential in the US market. Those who score above 100 are deemed “superstars”, while scores between 30 and 49 ranked the sportsperson as an “All-star”, less than 30 and they’re “starters”. At the time, Federer was at 43, Nadal at 34 and Djokovic languishing on 14. Since stringing together an impressive eight Grand Slam titles though, the current world number one has upped his commercial favour and, in 2015, was ranked as 15th in Forbes’ annual look at the world’s highest-paid athletes.

He collected $17.2m in prize money and a further $31m in the crucial endorsement side of things. Djokovic has really had to secure consistency and longevity in terms of winning the big titles to finally get his sponsorship credentials up to scratch – he now ranks second all-time in prize money with a total of $79m. Recent lucrative deals with Jacob’s Creek, Peugeot, Seiko and ANZ have meant his commercial winnings are matching up with his status as the men’s top seed.

Federer’s long-time standing at the top of the men’s game partly explains why he’s still ahead of Djokovic as the fifth highest-paid athlete, though his career marketability came more easily which has contributed. Despite being away from his best form (he appeared in 18 out of 19 grand slam finals between 2005 and 2010), Federer collected $9m in prize money and still pocketed $58m in endorsements. He enjoys long-term deals with blue-chip companies including Rolex, Nike and Credit Suisse.

So, marketability is a big consideration for potential sponsors, who hope the commercially-appealing players also have the talent to secure some visibility too. There does, though, remain concerns that big name endorsements can side-track players – particularly younger, upcoming ones – from realising their potential.

The example that always gets referenced as is Anna Kournikova. She won WTA newcomer of the year in 1996 and in 1997 and reached the semi-finals of Wimbledon, indicating she was very much a star on the rise. Kournikova won the Australian Open playing doubles with Martina Hingis, and though her singles results began to plummet, her celebrity was on the up. Kournikova made $11m in endorsements for 1999. 

Despite never winning a WTA singles tournament, her commercial power meant Kournikova kept raking in sponsorship money – raising the question of just how often that trumps talent.

It seems more of a concern among the women players. Li Na won two grand slams but picked up $15m thanks to her huge appeal with the Chinese market. Meanwhile Caroline Wozniacki, who is yet to win a grand slam, still earns $11m annually. Questions have arose as to whether too many are looking at financing themselves off the court and losing their focus on it as a result.

The latest player whose future in this respect seems uncertain is 21 year-old Eugenie Bouchard, the highly capable Canadian currently ranked at 11th in the world. She quickly won over numerous fans with her rapid progress – reaching 2014’s Wimbledon final, where she lost to Petra Kvitova.

The future looked bright after she won the girls’ title in 2012, was named WTA Newcomer of the Year in 2013 (like Kournikova) and reached the semifinals of the Australian and French Opens in 2014.

However, since reaching the quarter-final of the 2015 Australian final and losing to Sharapova, Bouchard has won just four matches, exiting seven tournaments with first-match losses. 

She has also come under criticism for gamesmanship – refusing to shake the hand of an opponent at the Fed Cup didn’t go down well with tennis fans or the media. It marked a remarkable turnaround in public opinion for someone settling into “her throne alongside the royalty of world tennis”.

Her decision to ditch the coach who had shepherded her success, Nick Saviano at Lagardère Unlimited, also came under scrutiny – with speculation that she was taking her eyes off the tennis prize. In late 2014, she signed a deal with sports management giant WME-IMG, which also included a deal with IMG models “to expand her presence in the fashion industry”. 

It would be wrong to say marketability is a fast route to trouble for tennis players – Sharapova after all, has managed to maintain a rigorous training regime for her five grand slam wins, alongside her stack of sponsorship deals. Likewise, there are many reasons why a player may not reach their full potential – from injuries to not being able to cope with the pressure.

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It is, though, still a valid concern, particularly for the younger players who may suddenly be swarmed with opportunities and won’t necessarily have the guidance to keep their focus on track.

Interestingly, Bouchard topped Sport Pro magazine’s 2015 list of the world’s most marketable athletes – followed by Brazilian footballer Neymar and American golfer Jordan Spieth. The study assesses consumer perceptions of more than 5,600 celebrities across 15 markets in the world each month.

Bouchard’s placing here indicates just how potent her current marketability is and, coupled with her prowess on social media (racking up over 450,000 followers on both Twitter and Instagram), it’s clear her brand is at its peak. Whether her increased commercial winnings see her tennis career stutter as a result remains to be seen. 

There are examples of both the risks of attempting to balance big endorsements with sport potential, and the success that can come from doing so effectively. If Bouchard wants to do both, she may want to check out Sharapova’s template for success.