Roger Federer’s proud record of not forfeiting a tennis match in his epic career seemed to be under threat at the Australian Open at the start of this year. A clearly wounded Federer lost to Novak Djokovic 7-6 (7/1), 6-4, 6-3 and admitted later he only had “a 3% chance” to win as he nursed a groin injury picked up in his quarter-final epic against Tennys Sandgren, where he saved seven match points.

But only a few days after that, the tennis world was abuzz with the idea of watching Federer and Rafael Nadal in action. Despite injury, he assured fans of his participation in the charity event titled Match in Africa. After all, more than 48,000 tickets were sold in under 10 minutes in September 2019 when bookings were opened.

It is just the hold #Fedal have on the tennis community and another surefire sign of Federer’s incredible popularity. The outing with Nadal, Bill Gates and Trevor Noah raised $3.5m for Federer’s eponymous foundation, and the crowd of 51,954 set a new world record for a tennis match.

If that marked an interesting start the year for Federer, things just got more interesting on Friday. For the first time since turning professional in 1998, the Swiss superstar became the richest athlete in world, reaching No 1 on the Forbes magazine list of 100 highest-paid sportspersons globally. The 20-time Grand Slam champion became the first player from his sport atop the annual list since its 1990 debut, rising from fifth in 2019.

Forbes 2020 richest athletes:

1. Roger Federer: $106.3 million (Endorsements: $100m, Salary/winnings: $6.3 million) 
2. Cristiano Ronaldo: $105 million (Endorsements: $45m, Salary/winnings: $60 million) 
3. Lionel Messi: $104 million (Endorsements: $32m, Salary/winnings: $72 million) 

66. Virat Kohli: $26 million (Endorsements: $24m, Salary/winnings: $2 million)

Endorsements galore

Federer has won $130 million in prize money in his career ($129,946,683, singles and doubles combined) but that is only a minor part of his overall earnings. His haul over the past 12 months alone included $100 million from appearances fees and endorsement deals plus $6.3 million in prize money.

(Note: Forbes’ earnings figures for 2020 include prize money, salaries, bonuses, endorsements, royalties and appearance fees earned between June 1, 2019 and June 1, 2020.)

His previous best placing on the Forbes top-100 list was second in 2013. In 2019, Federer was ranked fifth with overall earning of $93.4 million that included $86 million off the court. In the decade’s rich list issued by Forbes last year, Federer was placed fifth with a total of $640 million.

Roger Federer's earnings in the last 10 years

Forbes list Overall earnings Place on the list
2020 $106.3 million No. 1
2019 $93.4 million No. 5
2018 $77.2 million No. 7
2017 $64 million No. 4
2016 $67.8 million No. 4
2015 $67 million No. 5
2014 $56.2 million No. 7
2013 $71.5 million No. 2
2012 $52.7 million No. 5
2011 $47 milllion No. 4
2010 to 2019 (decade) $640 million No. 5
Courtesy: Forbes magazine

Unlike Ronaldo and Messi, who make a large part of their fortune through their weekly wages from the club, Federer’s income is spread across what is believed to be the strongest brand portfolio seen in the history of sport.

“The coronavirus pandemic triggered salary cuts for soccer stars Messi and Ronaldo, clearing the way for a tennis player to rank as the world’s highest-paid athlete for the first time,” said Kurt Badenhausen, Senior Editor, Forbes, who reckoned Federer’s going the Michael Jordan way when it comes to branding.

“Federer is the perfect pitchman for companies, resulting in an unparalleled endorsement portfolio of blue-chip brands worth $100 million a year for the tennis great.”

It helps that he is one of the most engaging athletes in the world: he can hold the attention of a room full of journalists and can be equally entertaining even when answering questions from a bunch of kids. His genius during a game of tennis is matched by his effortless charm during on-court interviews (mostly). In a career spanning more than 20 years, he has largely stayed away from controversies. His charity work, mainly through the Roger Federer foundation, has earned him plaudits too.

“His brand is pristine, which is why those that can afford to align with him clamour to do so,” University of Southern California sports business professor David Carter told Forbes.

Federer boasts the biggest sponsorship lineup among active athletes with Moet & Chandon and Barilla among those paying from $3 to $30 million to link him with their brands. Only Woods has joined Federer in making $100 million in sponsorship deals in a single year. His newest deal is with Swiss running shoe On, where he is an investor, but several sponsors have been with him for more than a decade, including Rolex, Credit Suisse, Mercedes-Benz and Wilson.

A split with Nike in 2018 opened Federer to Japanese apparel brand Uniqlo’s 10-year deal worth $300 million. And that’s currently is the biggest part of his earnings. The incredible part of it is that the deal was signed when he was seemingly at the back-end of his career but the aforementioned amount is guaranteed to reach Federer’s accounts irrespective of when he stops playing.

Way ahead of his peers

Between 2018-’19, Federer earned $86 million from endorsements. That figure stood at $30 million for Djokovic and $26 million for Nadal. In the latest list, when Federer pocketed a cool $100 million off court, Djokovic and Nadal made $32 million and $26 million. Serena Williams’ endorsement earnings stand at $32 million as she was overtaken by Naomi Osaka ($34 million) for the first time.

These figures serve to highlight that, in the only sport in the world where men and women are closely bunched in terms of earnings through prize money, Federer is still miles ahead of his colleagues when it comes to brand value.

Brand Roger is, perhaps, G.O.A.T.

And, just as his Uniqlo deal proved, Federer is not slowing down.

According to Badenhausen, “A renowned sneakerhead, Federer will endorse the brand (On), whose sales have been doubling annually since its 2010 launch and also invested in the company in return for an equity stake that one source called ‘significant’, a partnership that could have serious upside for Federer.”

The smooth-talking Swiss star himself is aware that retirement does not really mean enduring a void. During an interview for his endorsement with On, Federer said: “But no, this is not about retirement. On doesn’t want me to retire. They want me to play as long as possible and that’s also my goal.”

One should add his brainchild, the Laver Cup, to it as well. Federer and his management company, TEAM8 teamed up with Brazilian businessman and former Davis Cup player Jorge Paulo Lemann and Tennis Australia in creating an event that looks increasingly likely to be a fixture in the tennis calendar for many years to come.

Then there is his iconic ‘RF’ logo. He wore Nike apparel for the better part of his career but when he made the switch to Uniqlo, the logo that had become synonymous with him remained with Nike, who decided to keep it till their stock of the Federer apparel sold out. After a couple of years, Federer has got his logo back. And that is bound to bring in more money for him.

No wonder he doesn’t feel there will be void in life after tennis. “Having a foundation, having four children, having some sponsors that are going to exceed my playing days, I think it will be fine,” he told FT in an interview last year.

Federer may or may not add to his 20 Major titles, he may or may not win an Olympic singles gold medal, he may or may not go past Jimmy Connors’ all-time ATP title count: but Federer’s value at the top of the branding charts among tennis players is likely to be unsurpassed.

(With AFP inputs)