Even before Novak Djokovic and Kei Nishikori hit a shot in their U.S. Open semifinal Saturday, there will already be one clear winner — Uniqlo.
Both players will walk on court wearing the logo of the Japanese casual clothing company, giving the brand a huge payoff for what seemed like a risky sponsorship gamble on tennis over the last three years. After all, Uniqlo is still known more for jeans, khakis and knit shirts than sports apparel.
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"We're obviously very happy and proud," said Larry Meyer, chief executive officer of Uniqlo USA. "The buzz we're getting on social media alone has been incredible."
Uniqlo, a subsidiary of Fast Retailing Co., is owned by Japan's richest man, Tadashi Yanai, listed by Forbes as worth $16.5 billion. His goal is to make Uniqlo the top clothing chain in the world and he is well on his way, with more than 1,400 stores, mostly in the Far East, and huge flagships in Shanghai, Tokyo and New York.
Yanai raised eyebrows two years ago when he signed the endorsement deal with Djokovic, who had worn Sergio Tacchini, despite the fact Uniqlo was not known for athletic wear and had only one other major tennis player on its roster, the homegrown Nishikori, who had worn Adidas. They are still the only tour players who wear the red-and-white Uniqlo patch.
The only other major athlete signed by Uniqlo is golfer Adam Scott.
"Uniqlo is incredibly lucky," said Allen Adamson, a sports branding expert with Landor Associates in New York, adding that it makes no difference that the brand is known more for fashion than sports "because the line between sports and fashion has been blurring for years."
Even bettter for Uniqlo, Adamson said, was the fact that its brand is being worn by the 10th-seeded Nishikori, who outlasted Australian Open champion Stan Wawrinka in five sets to become the first Japanese man to reach the U.S. Open semifinals in 96 years.
"What succeeds in branding are great stories and Nishikori has a great story. He's an underdog," Adamson said. "It's far more relevant from a marketing standpoint than the same old, same old. ... Just another athlete wearing the Nike swoosh."
Nishikori is listed by Forbes as the ninth-highest-earning tennis player in 2014, a roster headed by Roger Federer with prize money and endorsements totaling $56.2 million. Forbes puts Nishikori's annual take at $11 million a year, with endorsement deals with Wilson, Tag Heuer and Nissin noodles, among others.
But Syracuse University sports marketing expert Rick Burton says Nishikori's U.S. Open run, especially if he goes all the way to the championship, could help him earn much more. By raising his profile as one of the few Japanese athletes who competes on a world stage, Burton says Nishikori could fetch up to $100 million in endorsements over the next couple of years.
"His potential in Japan alone is huge," he said.
Uniqlo's Meyer acknowledged Saturday's semifinal will indeed by a historic moment for the company, a chance to "align our brand with the people who are the best." But he refused to say if owner Yanai will fly in to witness it himself.
"We will have a presence," he said.