The key to Roger Federer’s commercial success is his red passport with its white cross, according to his manager Tony Godsick.
For others, however, Basel’s favourite son is much more of a global athlete, transcending the barriers of his nationality and his sport.
Since turning pro in 1998, Federer has pocketed $61,657,232 (SFr59.5 million) in prize money. Yet this is just the tip of the iceberg. According to the Swiss business magazine Bilan, the winner of a record 16 grand slam titles is sitting on a fortune worth SFr200-300 million, putting him among the 300 richest Swiss.
The American magazine Sports Illustrated reckons Federer earned $62 million in 2010 alone, two-thirds of which came from sponsorship deals. Only Tiger Woods did better, amassing a cool $90 million.
Federer’s Spanish nemesis, Rafael Nadal, who won three of four grand slam titles last year, had to scrape by with a mere $27 million.
It’s not easy to find someone in the tennis world who is prepared to comment on these figures or to explain Federer’s marketing Midas touch.
Tony Godsick, vice-president of management agency IMG who has looked after Federer since September 2005, isn’t usually particularly forthcoming. He did however give a few interviews to Swiss media during the Australian Open last month.
One thing he always underlines is Federer’s Swiss passport, which he believes is priceless when it comes to selling his image abroad.
“Roger is a global icon and we see to it that his brand develops internationally,” Godsick told Geneva-based newspaper Le Temps.
“What makes him so attractive for all the big companies is the fact that he is Swiss. Switzerland is a small country with which one associates loyalty, luxury, precision and perfection. Now, whether he’s in France, Asia, the United States or elsewhere, he’s welcomed as though he were at home,” he said.
“It’s as though his country’s neutrality makes him a global citizen.”
Fabien Ohl, a sports sociologist at Lausanne University, doesn’t really buy Godsick’s “Swissness” explanation.
“Federer’s nationality has little significance abroad, where people attach other values that are closer to their own culture. In India, China, Japan and Pakistan for example he’ll be seen more as the ideal of the Western man who succeeds,” he told swissinfo.ch.
Ohl says people tend to attribute stereotypical national qualities to sport stars. Long-standing beliefs are dug up and projected onto top athletes, “when in reality they are global stars who are no longer really linked to one country”.
Lawrence Frankopan is agent for Stanislas Wawrinka, Switzerland’s number two tennis player and currently ranked 14 in the world.
Frankopan is very careful when it comes to discussing the finances of an athlete who does not belong to his stable, but he concedes that “few athletes have the ability to transcend the sport and have a platform beyond the tennis court”. He cites three who have managed it: Federer, Nadal and Maria Sharapova.
For him, Federer’s Swissness isn’t key. “When Roger and Rafa [Nadal] meet in a grand slam final, the match is broadcast on television channels all around the world. They’re playing on a global platform – that’s the best way to join in a global brand,” he said.
“There are only two other sports that have a similar window: golf and Formula One.”
But how does one explain the financial gap between Federer and Nadal, who was clearly more successful on the court in 2010?
“You’ll have to ask Tony Godsick – but I’m not sure he’ll answer,” Frankopan smiled.
The most common reasons for Federer’s high marketability are his smooth and friendly image, his scandal-free private life – not forgetting that he’s quite handy with a racket, holding the record for the number of grand slam titles held by a male player.
Frankopan added that it’s easier to make a breakthrough when you come from a country with a sizeable publicity window, such as Germany, Britain or the US.
“This was initially a concern even for Federer – despite his success – because he came from a smaller market,” he said.
In 2007 Beat Ritschard, head of the Swiss office of global sports management agency Octagon, told swissinfo.ch he thought Federer had been “undersold” for many years.
“But now he’s trying to compensate for that. Some of his deals are probably too local for someone like Federer,” he said.
Indeed in 2009 Federer amicably parted with Swiss dairy company Emmi, because, as a spokesman said, “Federer is a class too high for us”.
Ritschard added that Federer’s image was always excellent from a tennis point of view – it was just that his public image beyond tennis and his marketing suffered from a lack of contacts and his desire to focus only on his tennis without much professional advice outside his family.
This was precisely the time that he employed the services of IMG and Godsick, whose top priority was breaking the US market, which until then was unconvinced by Federer’s somewhat bland image.
Today, the global athlete, who has his own brand – RF – and a line of clothing, has largely broken free of the Swiss market.
If he is still attached to several luxury brands, they are above all those Swiss companies – chocolate, watches, coffee machines and banks – that have their sights set abroad.
As of February 2011, Federer has ten sponsors: Nike, Gillette, Wilson, Mercedes, NetJets, Credit Suisse and Rolex internationally (although Rolex and Credit Suisse are Swiss companies), and domestic companies Lindt, Jura and Nationale Suisse.end of infobox
Career prize money (as of July 4, 2011):
1. Roger Federer – $63,563,278
2. Pete Sampras – $43,280,489
3. Rafael Nadal – $42,646,332end of infobox
(With input from Thomas Stephens), swissinfo.ch