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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.

The Lowdown on the Laver Cup

Today marks day 1 of the inaugural Laver Cup from the O2 arena in Prague; a new men's tennis competition which pits 6 of the top European players against 6 counterparts from the rest of the world. The Cup is named after Australian tennis legend Rod Laver and has been set up by Roger Federer's management company, TEAM8, Brazilian businessman and former Davis Cup player Jorge Paulo Lemann and Tennis Australia.

Synergy's Matt Kiernan offers five thoughts on tennis' newest competition…

1/ Every individual sport looks across enviously at The Ryder Cup

We all know about the magic of The Ryder Cup and millions of fans (beyond golf’s core audience) love to see the individual greats of golf come together as a team. Is this the equivalent that tennis has been waiting for? It’s worth remembering that it took time, increased competitiveness (and a certain Severiano Ballesteros) to help grow the Ryder Cup into the global event that it is today. Will the Laver Cup be afforded such time to develop? And who’s the player that will carry its mantle?

2/ Close matches and genuine passion are going to be crucial

Launching the competition with the great Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe as team captains is a positive start to proceedings. But for the Laver Cup to really grab the attention of sports fans across the world, then some on-court rivalries to match that of Borg and McEnroe will be required. The teams on paper look like a bit of a mismatch – team Europe have 36 Grand Slam titles between them and are led by two all-time greats in Federer and Rafa Nadal (and just imagine if Messrs Djokovic, Murray and Wawrinka had been fit for selection!). The withdrawals due to injury of Juan Martin del Potro, Milos Raonic and Kei Nishikori leave the Rest Of The World Team looking a little short of quality…and all eyes will be on Australian bad boy Nick Kyrgios to bring the firepower.

The organisers will certainly be hoping for a closely fought event and have decided that matches are worth more points on the deciding Sunday, in the attempt to keep interest levels from dropping.

That said, the mouth-watering potential of a Federer/Nadal doubles pairing might just create the legendary story the Laver Cup desperately needs.

3/ What does this mean for the Davis Cup?

In recent years the ‘Big 4’ of the men’s game have all carried their nations to Davis Cup glory; however, there can be no doubt that the commitment to the Davis Cup is waning and the competition has struggled to attract the top players year on year.

McEnroe is typically bullish in his position on this; “I think we are all excited and hopeful that this [the Laver Cup] is going to be successful and force some people to take a good, hard look at the rest of the schedule. You know that I have had a lot of history with Davis Cup. But I believe that the Davis Cup has been very slow in doing anything different. It is such a big commitment that they need to make some changes. And so maybe this will push it along.”

It will be very interesting to see how the Davis Cup reacts…

4/ Where are the women?

I think it is a real missed opportunity that the Laver Cup isn’t a mixed event (perhaps to supersede the Hopman Cup). This would have made a real statement that the women’s game is viewed on an equal footing to the men’s by the organisers. The Rest Of The World team would certainly have been strengthened by some of the US women who recently dominated the US Open.

And besides - wouldn’t it have been great if Martina Navratilova (assuming her Czech not US nationality!) and Chris Evert had also stepped in as co-captains?

And imagine the global headlines if the returning Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova could line up on opposite sides in the 2018 competition?

5/ Where is the activation?

We have seen first-hand at Synergy the power of The Ryder Cup in connecting brands with their audience, through our work with Standard Life Investments and BMW. There are some big brands with a long heritage in tennis associated to the Laver Cup (Rolex, JP Morgan and Mercedes to name three), but any extensive activations seem strangely lacking; Rolex created this video featuring Rod Laver, Mercedes used their relationships with the Cup and Federer for this film and the team announcements were made at the JP Morgan Chase building in New York. It will be interesting to see how these brands engage with the fans attending the event and how partners might react if the Laver Cup can really become tennis’ equivalent to The Ryder Cup in future years.

I will certainly be keeping a close eye on the action in Prague over the next few days. Not only to see what a '35-individual-Grand-Slam-titles' doubles pairing looks like, but also to begin to gauge whether the Laver Cup has a bright (and commercially viable) future.