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Roger Federer on course to join billionaire athlete club

Roger Federer on course to join billionaire athlete club

The Swiss would join rarefied sporting company, alongside the likes of Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan and Floyd Mayweather.

Roger Federer has made a career of piling up records on court, but he's also approaching some big numbers off the court.

The 20-time Grand Slam champion appears likely to break the $100 million mark in annual earnings for the first time, and is on course to earn a billion dollars through sponsorship and prize money. That's based on widely-cited—if unofficial—figures published by Forbes, which has regularly identified Federer as one of sport's top-earning names with the highest sponsorship income among professional athletes.

According to Forbes' most recent mid-year figures, Federer's annual earnings have reached a career-high of $93.4 million—a big jump from the $77.2 million he was estimated to have earned in 2018. That increase likely reflects the sponsorship agreement he signed with Uniqlo in 2018, which is rumored to pay $30 million annually—around $15-20 million more than he had been getting from Nike, which included both clothing and shoes. 

And the dollar figures only appear to be going up, suggesting Federer may top $100 million in earnings for the 2019 season. He recently announced an investment in On, a running shoe company based in Switzerland, with plans to develop a shoe line. It fills an opening created by the conclusion of his official association with Nike, though he still wears the company's shoes on court. Add to that a lucrative South American exhibition tour during the off-season, said to be worth at least $10 million, along with another exhibition in China, both of which will be on top of his usual take-home pay.

Year Annual earnings (Forbes)
2019       $93.4 million 
2018  $77.2 million
2017 $64 million
2016 $67.8 million
2015 $67 million
2014 $56.2 million
2013 $71.5 million
2012 $54.3 million
2011 $47 million
2010 $43 million
2009 $33 million

That would also leave Federer's career on-and-off-court earnings approaching $900 million, with more than $200 million more committed by sponsors.

It would be the first time a tennis player has become an official 'billionaire' from the sport, though former professional Ion Tiriac reached that status in retirement though his involvement in post-Communist Romanian banking and other investments. Another billionaire, Brazilian Jorge Paulo Lemann, a friend of Federer's, played Grand Slam tennis before becoming an investor.

It also puts him in rarefied sporting company. Tiger Woods reached the billion-dollar threshold in 2009, with earnings at a high of $127.9 million in 2008. Woods was joined in 2015 by Michael Jordan, who has earned most of it since his playing days, and in 2017 by boxer Floyd Mayweather, who has done it during his career.

These types of earnings estimates are sometimes questioned by the athletes involved, and the actual amounts athletes have can vary wildly depending on spending and investment. But they provide a comparison point in an area where there is little in the way of official statistics.

"I've never done crazy, silly investments," Federer told CNBC when announcing his involvement with On, describing the amount he's put into the company as "the biggest" of his investments so far.

Federer's earning power reflects his career accomplishments—he holds the record for men's Grand Slam singles titles and most weeks at No. 1, and is second in tournament wins, with 103 titles. On top of that, he is widely perceived as the most popular player in the game, winning the ATP's Sportsmanship Award more than a dozen times, and has been voted the ATP Fan's Favorite every year since starting to win Grand Slams in 2003.

But just like both those things, it has taken a while to build. Federer was not even represented by an agency during his ascent to the top of the game, preferring to keep the business side in the family, with then-girlfriend and now wife Mirka taking on a lot of the day-to-day activities. He signed relatively few sponsors during this period, but started his foundation in 2003.

Federer now suggests this initial caution eventually helped him.

"I remember once back in 2004 when I came here to the US Open, people were saying I don't have enough partners," he said to CNBC. "I think it's great I kept a bit of a white canvas, then I was able to partner with the best brands in the world."

In 2005, the new No. 1 finally cracked the Forbes rankings in $14 million in earnings—still way behind earnings leader Andre Agassi. The same year, he re-signed with an agency, IMG, which assigned him to a relatively inexperienced reps named Anthony (Tony) Godsick. By 2012, Federer's earnings had climbed to $54.6 million; he and Godsick left IMG to start their own firm, Team8, the following year.

There was another sharp increase to $71.2 million during this period, likely from the $14 million he is said to have earned from a similar South American tour in 2012. Those exhibition amounts appear to be even higher than this year, which, if accurate, could reflect the region's economic fluctuations. 

Federer's earnings generally have kept climbing since, with some up-and-down movement tied to injuries and comebacks. Team8's activities have also increased, having started with representing Federer and a handful of other players, including Juan Martin del Potro, WTA breakthrough Coco Gauff and Alexander Zverev. More prominent these days is its role in Laver Cup, a team competition event which was started by Team8 in a partnership that now also includes the ATP Tour, the Australian Open and US Open.

Getty Images

It all means that Federer can compete against a player his agency represents at an event he partly owns—an unusual amount of influence even in a sport known for conflicts of interest, though hardly unprecedented. And while he has taken an interest in the running of the sport through his career, serving as the President of the ATP Player Council from 2008 to 2014, it is now part of the territory. Some of these involvements have seen him get drawn into discussions as varied as the scheduling of Davis Cup, which could clash with Laver Cup, and the WTA age eligibility rule, which has affected Gauff.

So far, he has navigated these new demands, but it has created tension between his personal traditionalism and more recent professional commercialization. And as Federer plays deeper into his thirties, finding a balance between on-court and off-court demands is becoming increasingly integral to his career. 

Federer upped both his tournament schedule and the amount of exhibitions he plays in 2019, increasing his workload. The father of twin daughters and twin sons must also fit this around spending time with his family, which often accompanies him on the road. He has joked that the small army of people he brings with him at a Grand Slam requires reaching at least the semifinals to break even. Then there are sponsor appearances, training blocks, and even the odd vacation—all of which have to be carefully scheduled.

While he has a commanding lead in earnings, Federer has increased competition from his rivals in other areas: the Grand Slam record (Rafael Nadal), the record for weeks at No. 1 (Novak Djokovic), and his current standing (other younger players moving towards the top of the game). But Federer is still right there, and has kept achieving records himself.

The value of the Federer name was neatly captured when the government of Switzerland recently announced that it was putting him on a special issue of the 20 franc coin. International demand for the release was so high it shut down the Mint's website within a few hours.

Or in other words, Federer's still money in the bank.