Roger Federer has landed the top spot on the annual Forbes list of the highest-paid athletes for the first time this year with $106.3 million in pre-tax earnings. The Swiss ace is the first tennis player to take the No. 1 rank since the list debuted in 1990.
Federer’s haul includes $6.3 million in prize money and $100 million from endorsements and appearance fees, lifting him from the No. 5 spot he held in 2019 and beating his previous high of second place in 2013.
“His brand is pristine,” says David Carter, a sports business professor at USC’s Marshall School of Business, “which is why those that can afford to align with him clamor to do so.”
Federer’s endorsement portfolio is unmatched among active athletes, with 13 brands including Barilla, Moet & Chandon and Rimowa paying between $3 million and $30 million to associate themselves with the 20-time Grand Slam champ. The 38-year-old and golfer Tiger Woods are the only two active athletes to have hit $100 million in a single year from sponsorships alone.
Federer’s on-court résumé is the stuff of legend, with the men’s records for most Slam titles and most weeks ranked No. 1 (310). The consistency is staggering. He ranked in the top three for 750 straight weeks—almost 15 years—and qualified for 18 out of 19 Slam finals between 2005 and 2010.
Call it the Jordan playbook, the blueprint for global domination chronicled in ESPN’s ten-part documentary on the basketball great, The Last Dance: command a sport with a global audience for years; appeal to both men and women; stay out of trouble; add in a dose of swagger and a dash of charisma. It made Michael Jordan the richest athlete on the planet and the first billionaire athlete. Even in retirement, he continues to collect endorsement checks rivaling those of Federer and Woods thanks to his massive cut of Nike Jordan Brand sneaker sales.
The three breathe a rarefied air, reserved for the most elite competitors. Jordan had the No. 1 spot on the Forbes list six times during his 13-year career with the Chicago Bulls, eventually giving up the mantle to Woods after he retired from the Bulls in 1998. (Formula One’s Michael Schumacher held the crown for two years between Woods and Jordan.) Woods went on to collect more than $100 million annually off the course at his peak, landing at the top of Forbes’ highest-paid athlete ranking a record 12 times until he broke stride, landing in hot water over an infidelity scandal while injuries contributed to a decade-long majors title drought on the links.
Federer, while seizing the top spot late in his career, is showing no signs of slowing down. His latest partnership is with Swiss startup running shoe On, whose headquarters sit close to the new home the tennis star is building on Lake Zurich. A renowned sneakerhead, Federer will endorse the brand, 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.
Another sign of his command of the off-court side hustle: Once companies align themselves with him, they almost never leave. Rolex, Credit Suisse, Mercedes-Benz and Wilson have all been on Team Fed for more than a decade. The exception? Jordan’s Nike.
Federer stunned the tennis world in 2018 when he split from the sneaker giant after 20 years and joined with apparel brand Uniqlo. The chain, part of Fast Retailing, made an offer he couldn’t turn down, promising $300 million over ten years whether he was playing tennis or not and leaving open a slot for a shoe deal like the one with On since the Japanese giant doesn’t make sneakers.
The length and terms of the deal raised eyebrows given that Federer was about to turn 37 when he signed it. At that age, almost all tennis players have long since retired—a detail that meant little to the long game the retailer is eyeing.
“We feel the greatest impact of Roger Federer is yet to come,” says Uniqlo’s head of global creative John Jay. “Of course, it will be fueled by his status as the greatest of all time, but Roger’s ability to bring positive change to the world is his future and ours.”
The company hopes Federer can hold the same kind of appeal Jordan still has long after he launched his last jump shot. Already, tennis clubs in Europe are flooded with kids wearing “RF” hats, the logo that Nike controlled for two years after the split but is back in Federer’s hands and is the foundation for future licensing deals.
It wasn’t his only shrewd move. Federer took more control of his brand when he left the IMG sports firm with longtime agent Tony Godsick to launch their own operation in 2013, dubbed TEAM8. Current clients include male tennis pros Juan Martin del Potro and Alexander Zverev, 16-year-old rising star Coco Gauff and New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist. TEAM8 also found success with the creation of a new annual event, the Laver Cup, which matches a team from Europe versus the rest of the world in a competition that is comparable to golf’s Ryder Cup.
Federer has other levers in the sport that even Jordan doesn’t have. He is a hot commodity for organizers of smaller tournaments that pay appearance fees for top players to show up; a men’s event without one of the Big Three—Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic—is a tough sell. Federer commands the top rate of more than $1 million per stop. Then there are the exhibition tours—a mix of tennis and show business—in places that have no major event to offer. He did a five-stop swing through Latin America in November that added more than $15 million to his bank account, including a match versus Zverev in a bullfighting stadium in Mexico City that attracted 42,517 fans, a record to watch a tennis match.
Federer has used his platform and cash to focus on educating children in Africa, with his namesake foundation spending $52 million to aid 1.5 million kids. He’s teamed with Bill Gates in charity matches three times; the latest “Match for Africa” featured Gates and Federer versus Nadal and The Daily Show host Trevor Noah in South Africa, where Federer’s mother was born. The February event raised $3.7 million.
Federer is the GOAT, both on and off the court.
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