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Off the court wins for Federer

David Rogers

Roger Federer is thought of by many as the greatest tennis player of all time. But, in monetary terms, his success on the tennis court has been exceeded by his commercial success off the court. Forbes last year reported Federer’s career earnings at $675 million, of which his tennis prize money amounts to less than 20%.

Much of Federer’s commercial success has come from his branding partnership with Nike which started way back in 1994. This branding partnership was exemplified with Nike clothing branded with the ‘RF’ initials, and it is that is now causing Federer a small amount of pain.

Federer’s sponsorship deal with Nike ended in March 2018, and he has since signed a bumper deal with Japanese clothing brand Uniqlo. While the Nike deal was said to be worth up to $10m per year, the deal with Uniqlo is three times the size at $30 million a year for ten years.

Despite Federer being 36 and presumably having limited time left on court, being a global sporting superstar, he will have ongoing value to Uniqlo as a global ambassador, selling Roger Federer clothing lines. Uniqlo hope that this will be in much the same way that Michael Jordan’s branding continued to sell successfully after he retired.

But in order to achieve the desired commercial outcome, both Uniqlo and Roger Federer need the rights to the personalised ‘RF’ branding. However, at least for the time being, these reside with Nike who designed the logo and branding. This means that Nike can continue to sell ‘RF’ branded clothing even though Federer is no longer associated with the brand.

Federer has been quoted as saying that he expects the rights to the ‘RF’ brand to be transferred over to him in the future, with speculation that should happen by March 2019, but Nike appears to be in a strong legal position. Jacqueline Pang, a trademark attorney at specialist IP law firm Mewburn Ellis told Tennis World USA that Nike “owns a number of trade mark registrations around the world for the RF logo and presumably also owns the copyright. Barring anything in the contract to the contrary, it could retain ownership of the brand and continue to exploit it. In that case, it would also be in a position to prevent Federer or any third parties (i.e. Uniqlo) from using the RF logo or anything similar for clothing and related goods.”

It remains to be seen what the resulting outcome will be, but Nike will have to weigh up the legal and commercial benefits of keeping the rights to the ‘RF’ branding against the beneficial public reaction that could be gained from being seen to return Federer’s initials to him (even though the brand never actually belonged to him). The value to the Nike brand of this kind of gesture may exceed the value to be exploited from keeping the ‘RF’ brand. Part of this decision will relate to whether Nike see Uniqlo as a rival in the sports apparel business, which it hasn’t in the past as Uniqlo paints itself as more of a lifestyle brand than a sporting brand. This is where skilled advisors come into play to help navigate these types of disputes.