Uniqlo pushes further into sports with Federer deal

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Reger Federer.
Reger Federer. Credit: Uniqlo

Uniqlo may not be well known for its performance sportswear, but it's trying to change that with its latest brand ambassador. The Japanese company just brokered a deal with tennis great Roger Federer after the Swiss athlete's contract with Nike expired earlier this year.

Federer, an eight-time Wimbledon champion, surprised many fans when he walked onto Centre Court for his first-round match Monday afternoon in an outfit by Uniqlo, which is owned by Fast Retailing Co. The Swiss star's apparel contract with the Beaverton, Oregon-based athletic-wear giant expired March 1.

"We are in very early stages of discussing how best to align Roger's personal humanitarian interests, strengths and availability with our community programs, while also exploring other ways we can innovate together in important areas like technology, education and sustainability," a Uniqlo spokeswoman says.

Federer is one of five of the retailer's global brand ambassadors. Uniqlo also has deals with tennis player Kei Nishikori, wheelchair tennis players Shingo Kunieda and Gordon Reid, and golfer Adam Scott. The brand endorsed 12-time Grand Slam winner Novak Djokovic for five years, but he signed with Maus Freres SA's Lacoste last year.

Federer will represent the brand at all major tennis tournaments throughout the year, beginning with Wimbledon, according to a Uniqlo spokeswoman. She notes that he will also wear the brand's LifeWear collection of clothing—apparel for all aspects of life including sportswear, innerwear and ready-to-wear—both on and off the court. Uniqlo has been pushing LifeWear in recent campaigns as it strives to differentiate itself from the disposable products of its fast-fashion-driven peers.

Federer's name recognition boosts Uniqlo's global expansion efforts, especially in Europe, where the brand is opening new stores. Uniqlo has seen strong growth in places like China, helping international sales top domestic revenue for two straight quarters. But the retailer may face challenges in markets where rivals such as Inditex SA's Zara and Hennes & Mauritz AB's H&M are more established.

Uniqlo didn't disclose the contract's terms or duration but said Federer, who has won a men's record of 20 Grand Slam titles, would represent the brand at all tennis tournaments throughout the year. ESPN reported that the deal guarantees him $300 million over 10 years—a time period that will take him well into retirement from the tennis circuit.

The new relationship gives a Uniqlo another shot at exploiting one of the sport's all-time greats. The brand endorsed 12-time Grand Slam winner Novak Djokovic for five years, but he signed with Maus Freres SA's Lacoste last year. Uniqlo continues to endorse Kei Nishikori, the most successful Japanese player ever.

Federer, who turns 37 in August, signed his first contract with Nike in 1994. He continues to wear the brand's shoes, as Uniqlo doesn't make athletic footwear. Nishikori also wears Nike shoes, having left Adidas AG last year.

Yet Uniqlo has a long way to go if it expects to become a Nike-caliber player in the sportswear world, according to one retail expert. Bob Phibbs, chief executive of New York-based consultancy the Retail Doctor, notes that Uniqlo's U.S. sales have been down. He calls the Federer play is an aggressive way to generate more buzz.

"As far as branding goes, people just don't equate Uniqlo with Nike quality and Federer is still wearing Nike shoes," Phibbs says. "Sports branding starts with the shoes and then carries up to apparel—it doesn't go the other way around."

-- with Bloomberg News

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