Believe it or not, it wasn’t too long ago that Roger Federer, the world’s top-ranked tennis player who this weekend will attempt to win his fourth-straight U.S. Open title, was only making about half the money in sponsorship revenue as did other marquee players. But considering that the now 26 year old Federer may indeed be one of the greatest players in history (given the massive dichotomy in both equipment and style of play across the eras, we’ll leave that debate alone), Steve Rosner’s comment two years ago that “Federer is probably the most under-appreciated athlete worldwide as far as marketing’s concerned,” was probably spot on. Rosner, a partner at 16W Marketing, an East Rutherford, New Jersey, sports advertising firm, was one of many analysts and industry pundits alike who were appalled that the young, talented Swiss still relied on a four-person team (which included his mother) to handle contracts that produced around $14 million annually in sponsorships, but that were arranged mostly with Swiss companies (such as the Swissair Group, and watchmaker Maurice Lacroix). In fact, Forbes magazine noted at the time that Federer’s sponsorships and winnings totaled about $1 million less than the $15 million Maria Sharapova, (the then-fourth-ranked women’s player), received in endorsements alone from companies such as Motorola and Canon. The Federer “brand” needed to go global, and who better than IMG (the leader, along with SFX and Octagon, in tennis management and representation) to help pave the way?
In fact, Federer had already been signed by IMG as a junior player in 1998. However, he later quit the agency giant in early 2003 and transferred his business affairs to Roger Federer Management, which was comprised by a Swiss attorney, Bernhard Christen, a financial adviser, his mother, Lynette Federer, and Mirka Vavrinec, his [then and now] girlfriend and a former professional player, who was put in charge of media relations and travel. Before the 2003 split, IMG had arranged sponsorships with Nike, Wilson tennis brand, and Emmi AG, the renowned Swiss dairy company. But his then-agent, Bill Ryan, abruptly left the company, and not long after Federer followed suit, stating that he wanted to have “more control” over his career, and turning over the bulk of Ryan’s management duties to Vavrinec.
It was about this time, however, that Federer’s career took off. He won his first Grand Slam title later that summer at Wimbledon, and then in 2004 he became the first man since 1988 to win three of four Grand Slam singles tournaments in the same year: the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. According to Christen, the sudden success became “overwhelming,” and ultimately caused Federer to return to IMG. He did so, he says, primarily in order to ease Vavrinec’s workload. “She would have to get tough with the media [and] say no,” Federer said. “People would say she is a bad person. She is my girlfriend, after all, so it was a conflict at times.” He did not return, he claimed, for the marketing opportunities IMG offered (though he would quickly sign a $15 million deal with Rolex). “I don’t want to have much more to do because I’m quite booked out already,” Federer said at the time. “I told that to IMG very clearly, that that’s not why I’m going back to you. It’s you guys that have more to do.” Whatever the reason, the tennis world was relieved, according to Darren Rovell (then of ESPN.com), who reported at the time that “many tennis agents [are] ‘concerned’ about Federer not having an agent because ‘they believed he was not maximizing his value on endorsement deals…[and] if the world’s best tennis player wasn’t getting top dollar, it could trickle down to the rest of the industry.”
IMG’s agents were not about to make the same mistake twice by losing Federer again. That said, they wouldn’t have been doing their jobs if they didn’t capitalize on Federer’s newfound status. But the balance was admittedly a delicate one given Federer’s reluctance. Says IMG’s Guy Kinnings on the company’s underlying mythos, “we can make sure there are global opportunities that are very interesting; but it’s up to the individuals to decide the way to go.” Since his 2005 return, the Federer-IMG marriage has been relatively tranquil, and the relationship wasn’t hurt when Federer became close friends with another IMG client named Eldrick Woods. Tony Godsick, Federer’s agent at IMG, immediately familiarized himself with Federer’s endorsements, and then drew up a marketing plan to fit his tennis and personal commitments. According to Godsick, because Federer speaks German, French and English, and because he has set up a foundation that raises money for South African children and portrays a “personable” image, he is endearing to many potential sponsors. Oh yeah, and he flat out dominates his opponents. Just ask Andy Roddick. But there’s always room for the Federer brand to grow, according to Godsick, and given IMG’s role in the continual expansion and unparalleled success of the Woods brand, Federer is surely in good hands as far as that goal is concerned. “His brand needs to continue to be developed globally,” Godsick stated. “Roger has the potential to be one of the most marketable athletes in the world and will certainly transcend his sport in this regard.”
Yet Vavrinec still remains his primary “manager,” and given what is, between the lines, Federer’s somewhat inherent distrust of outsiders (he has a history, a la Tiger, of quickly severing ties with those who get on his bad side), that may never change. In fact, he still remembers fondly his days sans IMG: “[Mirka and I] had a great time just going it alone. I learned a lot about myself and my team because I only had people working with me whom I 100% trusted.”
– Jason G. Wulterkens