Game, set, cash - Djokovic's Australian saga gives sponsors headache
MELBOURNE (AFP) - Novak Djokovic's bruising Australian saga not only stalled his push for a record 21st Grand Slam, but could also force his multi-million dollar backers to rethink their relationship with one of tennis' greatest, if flawed, champions.
The 34-year-old world No. 1, who was deported from Australia on Sunday (Jan 16), has banked more than US$150 million (S$202.3 million) on court in his career.
Off court, the numbers are just as staggering.
In 2021 alone, his sponsorship deals brought in some US$30 million, according to figures from Forbes magazine.
His place on the rich list was assured by deals from a range of companies including Japanese sports equipment manufacturer Asics to French car maker Peugeot.
Djokovic's Lacoste contract was his most lucrative, valued at around US$9 million by several American media outlets.
However, that income still lags behind his contemporaries.
Roger Federer and Serena Williams, who both passed 40 in 2021, banked US$90 million and US$40 million respectively. Japan's Naomi Osaka attracted US$55 million.
Some experts feel that Djokovic's fiery temperament and notorious mis-steps - he was disqualified from the 2020 US Open for accidentally firing a ball at the throat of an official - count against him.
"There is this impression that maybe he is not as likeable as Federer or Rafael Nadal," said Patrick Rishe, professor of sports economics at Washington University in the US city of St. Louis.
Although involved in several charities and respected by most of his peers, Djokovic's professional single-mindedness and stance over the Covid-19 vaccination have caused splits.
His admission of not isolating despite a positive Covid-19 test in December has seen his character further questioned.
"So any company that maybe was on the fence about working with him, this particular incident is just going to fuel the flames for not choosing to work with him, at least in the near term," said Rishe.
"His image is going to be tarnished because of this situation, because most of the players who play in this tournament (Australian Open) are vaccinated and have respected the rules," insisted Josh Schwartz, in charge of athletes marketing at American agency Pivot.
"It's unfortunate," said Rishe, "because he is on the cusp of setting the record for Grand Slam victories. Normally, when someone reaches this status, you'd think there would be endorsement opportunities, but I don't see any coming up in the short term."
Schwartz, however, does not see existing partners breaking their contracts in the midst of a crisis or even immediately after.
"Novak Djokovic is his own man. We cannot comment on his decisions," a spokesman for Swiss watchmaker Hublot, which signed a contract with the player only last year, told AFP.
"Hublot will continue its partnership with the world No. 1 in tennis."
Austrian bank Raiffeisen was more nuanced, recalling that its partnership dates back to "long before the reporting on the vaccination status of Novak Djokovic or his participation in the Australian Open".
"As a sponsor, we are closely monitoring the ongoing situation," it said.
However, there is a risk that a rupture could occur given the emotion and heat driven by the pandemic.
"It's a complicated situation," admits Schwartz. "Legally, there was no misdemeanour."
Companies and leagues are still nervously treading through the commercial minefield associated with the health crisis.
In early November, after making ambiguous comments about vaccination, National Football League quarter-back Aaron Rodgers was dropped only by a minor sponsor, Prevea Health.
National Basketball Association star Kyrie Irving did not suffer financially despite denouncing the obligation for athletes to vaccinate in New York state.
"As consumers, we have very short memories," argues Joe Favorito, a sports marketing specialist who teaches at Columbia University in the United States.
"We love heroes and villains and we love seeing people overcome hardships. If Novak Djokovic comes back, anywhere, it will top all of that, because he didn't break any laws.
"This is just his personal opinion. It in no way diminishes what he has done on the courts."