MELBOURNE, Australia – Canadian rising star Félix Auger-Aliassime unveiled some fairly significant news on his social media accounts Monday night (early Monday morning at home).
We scooped it a little early here at Open court.
After four years with Nike, Auger-Aliassime has left for a multi-year deal with adidas.
As is the norm in tennis, terms were not disclosed.
Concurrently, Auger-Aliassime’s good buddy Denis Shapovalov, who has been with Nike even longer than FAA, has just signed an extension to a deal that still had a year to run.
So on the tennis side, Canada is very happy on the men’s side today.
Nike’s focus on tennis less fierce
The departure of Auger-Aliassime, whose contract with Nike expired Dec. 31 but who had a good offer to re-up, is just the latest concrete evidence of the winds of change at the home of the iconic swoosh, in terms of its tennis business.
We saw a year ago how the sporting benemoth just dropped a large number of fairly notable – although not superstar – players before the 2020 season.
For decades, it was bucket-list territory for any tennis player to wear the swoosh. If you were a Nike athlete, you were the gold standard. It meant you were among the best, or on your way there.
After her contract expired with Nike last March, Auger-Aliassime’s fellow Montrealer Genie Bouchard continued to wear the gear for the rest of the season, even though she was no longer being supplied merchandise. It meant that much to her to be a Nike athlete.
That ended last week when she began her season at the Australian Open qualifying wearing a New Balance dress.
Being a Nike athlete put you on the same team with Michael Jordan, with Federer and Nadal, with Serena, with Neymar and Ronaldo. With Tiger.
And the casual wear, beyond the tennis gear, was plentiful and stylish.
A new reality for Nike
Nike still is the biggest name in the game. But doesn’t it feel like there’s this subtle change of vibe? Like they no longer feel like they have to have everyone and everything?
That era was a golden goose for a lot of tennis players, not just the top ones.
That’s no longer the case.
The clothing sponsorships – which are more scarce than ever – are spread out a little more evenly amongst the various clothing brands.
Rafael Nadal is the only Nike player in the men’s top five now. And Lacoste has two of the top five.
In the top 15, the only other two men wearing Nike are Andrey Rublev at No. 8 and Shapovalov at No. 12.
That said, those are two very interesting, dynamic, flashy players who may well bring the serious star power to the top of the game in a few years. Despite losing Auger-Aliassime, they may have the two most charismatic players among the younger stars. They also have players like Carlos Alcaraz and Jannik Sinner right behind them.
Still, we were told last fall that Nike had let go of all of its tennis reps. Those representatives dealt with the tennis shops around the country, adding personal touch and selling the gear face to face.
Now, when the shops want to order their Nike stock, they must go online and do it themselves. There now is little opportunity to upsell them. And, clearly, little motivation to keep the relationship with its tennis clients personal.
Federer’s departure a turning point
The departure of Federer in 2018 was not necessarily entirely related to this change in strategy. But it foreshadowed it.
Then about to turn 37, the Swiss star had been with Nike for 20 years. But as he negotiated to renew his contract in the twilight of his career, he wanted big money. Legacy money. As they say in the biz, eff-you money.
Nike called agent Tony Godsick’s bluff, in the sense that given how relatively modestly Federer’s logo-ed merchandise actually sold in the big picture of their other huge-revenue sports, they were not going to break the bank for him at this stage of his career.
And then Team 8 called Nike’s bluff, if they had a bluff, and found a big-money taker in the Japanese company Uniqlo.
But Uniqlo, which has both Federer and Nishikori now, is not a tennis company. Its tennis business barely makes a blip in most of the planet.
New adidas start for FAA
In the meantime it appears Auger-Aliassime, considered one of the best young players in the world and ranked No. 21 as he begins 2021, found a home he feels will work even better for him – one that dovetails better with his short- and long-term goals both on and off the court.
It’s a little – only a LITTLE – reminiscent of Andre Agassi’s departure from Nike. The former American star joined adidas in 2005 at age 35, after turning Nike tennis into big business over their 17-year-association.
At the time, Agassi had married Steffi Graf, a career-long adidas player. And he was thinking very philanthropically. And adidas was all about supporting his foundation and his vision. There was a very different culture there compared to Nike. And it feels as though it’s one that Auger-Aliassime is eager to partner with and do great things with.
It’s that time of the year, when players arrive in Australia sporting kit they weren’t wearing at the end of the previous season.
It won’t be the only change. But for Auger-Aliassime, it’s truly a new beginning at a very early stage of his career.