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Nike and tennis: A match once made in heaven could be drifting apart

Nike has been synonymous with tennis for over four decades. But in recent years, with Roger Federer leaving the brand, meaning he didn't follow in Michael Jordan's footsteps of remaining long-beyond his retirement, the relationship is not what it once was, as Vicki Contavespi explains.

Thirty years ago, in the heat of summer, the Nike brand was always on center stage because tennis, the sport of summer, was jam-packed with Nike-branded athletes.

At that time, the tennis world was squarely placed in the U.S., with Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi sitting at number one and two, respectively. Their matches were the hottest tickets in town.

Before Agassi, Sampras, and Jim Courier, John McEnroe sported the brand, along with Europeans like Michael Stich, which as German must have been a shot across the bows of the Bavarian-based Adidas.

Then came Roger Federer, who Nike signed at the age of 13, while Rafael Nadal joined the stable of the world's biggest sport brand at an even earlier age.

Which is your favourite tennis brand for clothing?

  • Nike

  • Adidas

  • Lacoste

  • ON

Mike Nakajima, head of marketing for Nike’s tennis business for 30 years, explained that "Nike thought Roger was a very promising young athlete, and we could see that the game was moving in Europe."

He also explained the importance of Nike building relationships when players are young. He told Talking Tennis: "When they are 16, or 17, 18 everyone knows about them, certainly our competitors do, so we focus on 11, 12, 13, and 14-year-olds."

So after Federer, Nike went to town, signing American teen phenom Serena Williams, and the Russian, Maria Sharapova. European players like Nadal, Marta Kostyuk, Marketa Vondrousova, Donna Vekic, Ajla Tomljanovic, Maria Sakkari, Caroline Garcia and even Iga Swiatek would follow, though the current WTA world number one soon left the stable for Asics and now ON. Americans Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys were also on the Nike team.

Interestingly, Novak Djokovic, currently the world’s number one tennis player, was never considered by Nike because, as Nakajima puts it, “Nothing against Novak — he’s a great player, speaks well, and can become the greatest player of all time. But from a marketing point of view, we felt that Serbia wasn’t a big market for us so we took that into consideration. Switzerland wasn’t all that big either, but when [Federer] became The Roger Federer, he became a global athlete and that’s good enough for us.

“Spain is a huge market for Nike, and Rafa has a huge following, so Roger and Rafa are the athletes we decided to hang our hats with, and you have to stick to your guns.” The brand has since latched onto the wunderkinds of the moment, signing Taylor Fritz, Jannik Sinner, Carlos Alcaraz, and Holger Rune.

But Nike doesn’t have a crystal ball, and the $40 billion company devotes just 1% of its money to tennis, with contracts that include minimum play requirements. As Nakajima says, “They either play or you let them go.”

Nike has hefty incentives in its contracts, but often has reductions if the players don’t hold up their end of the bargain. That means that if a certain ranking isn’t met, or participation in major tournaments doesn’t happen (usually the Grand Slams, but often the Masters 1000s events), an endorsement deal can be cut massively. As one prominent agent reportedly put it: “If you see a player outside the Top 20 wearing Nike, they (Nike) are not making any money.”

As a result, many Nike players are either moving on, or being shipped out. Federer left the brand in 2018 for a $30 million-a-year contract with Japanese brand Uniqlo, and this year Nike has seen a mass hemorrhaging of its talented stable. Gone are 38-ranked Kostyuk, 82-ranked Marketa Vondrousova, Donna Vekic at 23 in the world, and Ajla Tomljanovic at 36.

Higher-ranked players like Sakkari and Garcia have long-since left the brand. Andrey Rublev left to form his own brand, Rublo, with a friend.

Owing to Nike contracts’ structure, it is possible that the brand will also lose Grand Slam winners Naomi Osaka and Emma Radacanu because they do not play enough.

Nakajima adds: “The industry has to have an upswing.” And he is right. Tennis is, roughly, a $2-billion business, the New York Times reported last year, but it can only support around 100 players. Contrast that to basketball, where if a player is ranked 50th or 60th, they can still make around $12 million a year.

Tennis, on the other hand, is run by a hodgepodge of organizations, each with their own CEOs, CFOs, and a ton of overhead. These organizations include the four Grand Slam tournaments; the WTA tour for women; the ATP for men; and the International Tennis Federation (ITF), the world governing body, which oversees the Davis Cup and the Olympics along with some involvement with the Slams. So, a player ranked outside the top 100 is often not able to pay for a coach or a physio or, as Federer did, travel with his entire family to all events.

Only the crème de la crème land major endorsements with other companies. Jannik Sinner, a massively talented Italian player has, at 20, already landed a $15-million-a-year contract with Nike, and has endorsements with Rolex, Lavazza, Parmigiano Reggiano, Technogym, and Alfa Romeo. He has yet to win a Grand Slam, but he flew into the top 50 in 2020 with his first top 10 victories, a Grand Slam quarter-final, and a maiden ATP title.

The money may not be there for tennis, but it’s there for pickleball — a benign amateur sport that seemingly appeared out of nowhere during the pandemic but really got rolling in 2016.

According to leading market researchers, as of 2022, the pickleball equipment market was worth $60.22 billion. During the same time, the global market size for tennis equipment was a mere $1.3 billion. San Francisco's Grand View Research pegged the global market size for tennis at roughly $3.77 billion in 2021 and projected growth to expand at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 2.2% from 2022 to 2030. Pickleball, according to research firm Market Reports World, was valued at $1.3 billion in 2022 but is expected to expand at a CAGR of 10.19%, reaching $2.4 billion by 2028.

Pickleball may want to take over tennis courts, but for armchair viewers, nothing beats the four Grand Slams — namely the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open. And Nakajima knows what Nike wants: their athlete to be "holding the trophy at the end of the tournament."

Nike now has its eggs in the bounteous baskets of Sinner and tennis prodigy Carlos Alcaraz. Remarkably, US Open-winner Alcaraz received his first contract at the age of 10, in 2015, when Babolat offered him the use of their racquets.

Though Nike began its association with Alcaraz in 2015, he wasn't in a position to sign his first professional contract with them until 2020, reportedly worth over $1 million a year, but almost certainly much higher now. This year, Rolex made him a brand ambassador, and at 19 he is the youngest athlete the watchmaker has ever backed. Other sponsors include BMW, and Spanish food company ElPozo.

Albert Molina, Alcaraz's representative, said this about Babolat and Nike: "They are our main sponsors, and both are happy with the relationship and have let us know. We have signed contracts with these companies specifically until 2025 and have already started talking about extending them."

Nike won’t mind extending Alcaraz; he’s done what it wants. He's winning — regularly and spectacularly.


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