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Federer’s $300m Uniqlo deal shows that tennis sponsors are missing a trick

On the eve of Wimbledon, mainstream men’s tennis news was once again dominated by the same old names: Murray’s late withdrawal from the competition, Djokovic’s re-built serving action, Nadal’s lack of grass court preparation and, of course, Federer’s new bumper kit deal with Japanese brand Uniqlo.

This is no surprise to the casual tennis fan, for the Big Four in men’s tennis (regardless of Murray and Djokovic’s current rankings) are so entrenched in the tennis psyche that serious consideration to whom may one day replace them has yet to take place – but the times they are a changin’.

Federer’s deal with Uniqlo, a reported $300 million dollars over 10 years, may prove to good business, but even for the greatest tennis player of all time, securing a 10-year deal at the age of 36 is some coup. However, what’s undoubtedly a huge win for Federer should cause concern for the men and women in charge of developing the game, because it points to a lack of younger contenders whom would be worthy of receiving a much smaller pay cheque, with the promise of greater things to come.

In a surprising show of self-awareness, the ATP Tour has shown a clear willingness (and not an inconsiderable amount of time and money) in trying to address these concerns and allay fears that the sport is danger of a fallow period of talent.

This willingness has manifested itself into the #NextGenATP, a programme that aims to shine a light on the Tour’s best players aged 21 and under. Culminating in a season-ending tournament that mirrors the senior players’ ATP Tour Finals but with a combination of courtside innovations and dramatic rule changes all designed to grab the attention of a younger audience.

It’s fair to say the approach has had mixed results thus far, garnering huge criticism for the shockingly sexist NextGen Finals draw last season, and also receiving damning assessment from tour veteran Fabio Fognini, who slammed the perceived favouritism shown towards NextGen athletes at this year’s French Open.

To its critics then, the #NextGenATP is a false attempt to build up players who simply don’t carry the required skill to match or replace the old guard. Yet the numbers don’t lie, and a simple look at the stats should cause enough concern to understand why they’ve taken this action.

Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray are 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th on the all-time list of career prize money, and if sport is built on rivalry and competition, the recent period of unequalled consistency in men’s tennis is hard to beat. Nadal and Djokovic have played each other 51 times alone, victories split 26-25 in the Serbs favour, with the players regularly producing the kind of matches that fans, broadcasters and sponsors dream of.

Yet despite their individual brilliance and collective pulling power, the Big Four can’t go on forever. Names such as Stefanos Tsitsipas, aged 19, ATP ranking 35, Frances Tiafoe, aged 20, ATP ranking 52 and Felix Auger Aliassime, aged just 17 with an ATP ranking of 152, may lack of current media profile of the current crop, but possess the game, looks and attitude to flourish both on and off the court.

Time will eventually defeat even Federer but with the ATP Tour announcing record attendance levels at the most recent Tour Finals in London and Amazon outbidding Sky for the exclusive Tour TV rights, they are rightly keen to keep the momentum going and supporting the next generation of players is the only way to go.

There is then unrealised potential in the market for a forward-thinking sponsor. Next generation athletes who are social media savvy alongside a helping hand from a governing body in need of new stars points to a clear opportunity at a far lower investment level.

So, although the old guard won’t go down without a fight, it’s a matter of when, not if, the Big Four finally depart and when they do the fight for supremacy will be played out as fiercely by competing sponsors as the young guns on the court.

Brand Murray Is Just Beginning

Arguably sport always has been, and always will be, associated with stars. Sportspeople of incredible athletic ability make the impossible appear effortless, creating moments of magic that give fans the chance to utter the phrase “I was there”. For an athlete to be held in this rarefied bracket of superstars can bring global fame and vast financial reward, but also a burden of expectation not just from their own fans, but the sports they bestride.

The Next Stage

An athlete who must surely now be considered within this group is Wimbledon Champion Andy Murray. Three years since his first win, Murray once again captured the title that he covets most, placing him alongside esteemed double Wimbledon winners such as Stefan Edberg and Rafael Nadal. The win also topped off an incredible year for Murray. Marriage to his long-term girlfriend, guiding Great Britain to a Davis Cup win and becoming a father has brought about a slow but noticeable transformation of brand Murray. His growing maturity matched with a change in perception among even the most casual of tennis fans offers him the perfect opportunity to take his brand even further as he moves into the next stage of his career.

Star Power

According to London School of Marketing’s 2015 sport power list, Murray ranked in 16th place. Not bad, but when considered alongside his fellow male players, Rafael Nadal (8th) Novak Djokovic (7th) and Roger Federer (1st), there appears to be some room left to grow. Federer’s continued brilliance away from the court is in contrast to his slowly diminishing powers on it. Without a Grand Slam win for four years, Federer’s ‘RF’ brand remains worn by more than just a few of the paying crowd on centre court. His ability to show a side of his personality that resonates with sponsors without a link to the court has helped prolong his marketability and it’s a path that Murray has already started to tread.

Although he counts Under Armour and Head as his on-court equipment partners, Murray’s partnership with Standard Life represents a deal that looks to work with some of the less athletic aspects of Murray’s character and is undoubtedly contributing to a better understanding of the man behind the racket. Yet it’s imperative that the partnership works both ways, with a set of shared traits that can be projected to a targeted audience for the benefit of both sponsor and athlete.

Careful cultivation of these traits can truly transform reputations and Standard Life’s Master Your Dreams film series is a perfect example of the process at work. The films explore a side of Andy Murray that isn’t well-known, helping the audience to see a new thread in the Murray story and one that Standard Life applies to its own organisation. From the meticulous preparations of Andy’s childhood, to meeting his own sporting heroes, viewers have shown a willingness to engage with the films, sharing their changing perceptions and even thanking Standard Life for providing the opportunity for them do so.

Standard Life’s willingness to look beyond the common narrative and work with a different side of brand Murray not only helps them stand out from the crowd but supports their own story, not something every sponsorship or indeed athlete, has the ability to do. The challenge therefore is two-fold, first to identify an athlete whose own brand, ambitions and athletic performance complements that of a sponsor and secondly (and far more challenging) is to select the the correct aspect of an athlete’s story to tell.

Executed properly the rewards are clear for all to see, both on and off the court.

Work

Master Your Dreams

BRIEF

Build awareness of Standard Life and increase understanding of what the brand represents whilst highlighting the shared values of the association between Standard Life and Andy Murray: a commitment to excellence and to advancing ambition.

SOLUTION

This year, Standard Life’s partnership with Tennis World Number 2 Andy Murray tells the story of advancing ambition and commitment to excellence as part of the ‘Master Your Dreams’ campaign, created by Synergy.
Using the exclusive access Standard Life have to Andy Murray, we are creating a series of short films focusing on Andy’s ambition, dedication and passion to succeed, entitled “Master Your Dreams”. In addition to this, the “When Andy Met” supplementary content shows Andy Murray meeting other sporting heroes who have Mastered Their Dreams, to talk sports, performance and the pursuit of their remaining goals and dreams.

RESULTS

The series is still ongoing, but to date the films have collectively amassed over 6 million views across YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.