In a sport where many athletes retire by the age of 30, Federer is 38 and his athletic talent has faded only slightly. He’ll remain a Grand Slam contender for at least a few more years; should he keep playing, he’ll likely still have success in his sport. But Uniqlo’s big number frames Federer as so much more than that. While the Japanese apparel brand is using this year’s US Open as a showcase for its new performance line, the company knows that Federer is a globally respected figure, one who will have a hand in the brand’s design and aesthetic direction. Federer signed this deal when he was 37, so the ten-year pact will likely take Federer far past his playing career. For aging athletes with universal respect in their sport, Federer’s deal is the new benchmark.
Much has been written about the deal and the negotiations it took to strike it. By going big, Uniqlo had a lot to gain. It took a lot to pull Fed away from Nike, his apparel provider since 1994. Outbidding Nike would be a landscape-altering move that would involve some risk from Federer. LeBron James’s Nike deal will pay him $1 billion over decades; it stands to reason that Federer could get to that figure faster with Uniqlo.
More bespoke apparel deals will certainly follow this recent trend. At the height of Federer’s Nike heyday, it felt unthinkable that he would ever leave the brand. Tennis hasn’t necessarily grown rapidly, in terms of audience, in the past decade. But there’s reason to think that might change, and other stars in the sport have made decisions based on things other than money. But as things stand, Federer’s apparel deal might be the most important one in sports.