Tennis Players Ace Off-Court Fashion

Summer in the northern hemisphere is the season for many of the major global tennis tournaments, including the French and U.S. Opens and Wimbledon. It is also a key time for new product announcements involving well-known players, who have long been active in lending their names to fashion lines beyond their on-court endorsement deals.

Tennis players’ merchandise activities have been accomplished through a variety of partnership arrangements over the years:

  • Collaborations. Caroline Wozniacki teamed with Ovvo Optics last month for a collection of eyewear featuring seven styles for women and four for men. Separately, Maria Sharapova had a series of collaborations for footwear, handbags, and accessories with Cole Haan, beginning in 2009, some in partnership with Nike, and paired with Nike and retailer Collette on two limited-edition pairs of patterned sneakers in 2015.
  • Off-court spin-offs of on-court sponsorship deals. Roger Federer created a NikeCourt x Roger Federer collection in 2016 as part of NikeLab’s Summer of Sport celebration, representing his first off-court apparel venture. He has been a long-time partner with Nike for his on-court gear. The collection included sneakers, sweats, shorts, shirts, and jackets.
  • Branded products as part of promotional partnerships. Citizen Watch launched a limited-edition watch line with brand ambassador Victoria Azarenka in 2014, while Seiko had a similar deal with Novak Djokovic beginning in 2014. The latter focused on kids’ watches, with proceeds and branding tied to the Novak Djokovic Foundation. In 2017, Djokovic became a brand ambassador for Lacoste, with a signature product line being part of the deal.
  • Product development input (but no signature products) as part of a brand ambassadorship. Z Zegna named Alexander Zverev as its brand ambassador this month; the deal is mainly promotional, but the athlete had input into the design direction of the first collection released during his tenure. Similarly, Uniqlo named British wheelchair athlete Gordon Reid as a global brand ambassador last year, with the tennis player providing input on product development as well as promoting Uniqlo and its LifeWear line. These types of deals are sometimes precursors to signature merchandise collections.
  • Proprietary brands. Serena Williams launched her own line of apparel, called Serena, in May. (She also has created fashion collections through partnership deals with Nike and HSN.) The new venture includes athleisurewear, blazers, denim, and dresses, and the merchandise will be sold through a branded online shop.

Examples of traditional, long-term licensing deals in this space have been few and far between of late, but they have existed in the past. Björn Borg launched his line of underwear through a licensing deal with World Brand Management in 1997; WBM bought the rights to the trademark outright in 2006 and changed the company’s name to Björn Borg AB. The brand, which is popular in Europe, now includes footwear, accessories, fragrances, and other items for men and women, although underwear remains at its core. In recent years the brand has been launching capsule collections, including in partnership with outside designers such as Craig Green.

Borg is not the only tennis player to be associated with a long-running apparel program. Fred Perry, a British player in the 1930s, founded his company in the 1940s, starting with a sweatband developed in conjunction with Australian football player Tibby Wegner. The brand then expanded into a range of apparel, including the famous Fred Perry polo shirt in 1952. This year, the long-established name is collaborating with the likes of fashion label Thames and indie musician Miles Kane.

Perhaps the best-known example is French champion René Lacoste, who created his first tennis shirt, featuring a crocodile logo inspired by his on-court nickname, in 1929 before founding La Société Chemise Lacoste in 1933. The company, still a leading name in fashion today, celebrates its 85th anniversary this year with a unisex collection of 15 of its classic and retro styles.

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