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Expert says hiring Nishikori would boost American companies in Japan

by Jack Gallagher

His meteoric rise in the rankings over the past two seasons has made Kei Nishikori both a superstar on the court and a valuable commodity off it.

After climbing to No. 4 in the world this season, Nishikori’s services are in greater demand than ever. He has been guided well by agent Olivier van Lindonk and IMG, and currently has 14 official sponsors, with home improvement firm Lixil becoming the most recent just last week.

They include: Uniqlo, Nissin, Wilson, Adidas, Weider, Tag Heuer, JACCS, Delta, Jaguar, Asahi, Hisamitsu, IMG Academy, WOWOW and Lixil.

The question Match Point is posing today is how can Nishikori’s growing list of sponsors be expanded even more?

I reached out to one of the leading experts in the United States on sports marketing for some insight on Nishikori and what could possibly be done to enhance the branding power of the Shimane native.

Bob Dorfman is the Executive Creative Director at Baker Street Advertising in San Francisco, one of the top agencies in the country. Baker Street counts the World Series champion San Francisco Giants as one of its many clients. Dorfman publishes the Sports Marketers’ Scouting Report, a quarterly analysis of the marketability of pro athletes.

Dorfman is frequently called upon by print media and television shows to discuss sports marketing and what makes athletes appealing to sponsors.

“Nishikori is already a marketing icon in Japan, and though his resume has just about every product category covered, he could possibly add some deals with American companies looking to build their business in Japan,” stated Dorfman, who worked in advertising for Dentsu in Tokyo back in the 1980s and understands the Japanese market well.

Dorfman believes companies like “McDonald’s, KFC, Apple, Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Intel, Gillette, Frito-Lay, Coca-Cola, Vitaminwater, PowerBar, etc.,” would improve their brand here with Nishikori’s help.

“It looks like there’s still room for him in categories like fast food, high tech, grooming products, snack foods, soft drinks, energy drinks, energy bars and other health foods,” noted Dorfman.

How about Nishikori’s marketability in the United States, where he has lived for more than 10 years now?

“America desperately needs a marketable male tennis star to call its own, but I don’t think foreign-born Nishikori is the one,” Dorfman stated. “He’s not a native American, not a househould name/face here, and not a Grand Slam winner (and you know how America loves a winner).

“But again, he’s going to have to win like (Roger) Federer, (Novak) Djokovic, or (Rafael) Nadal to make Madison Avenue inroads,” points out Dorfman. “But with around $9 million in current marketing deals, it’s not like he’s hurting for more.”

Though he may not be viable as a spokesman in the U.S. at this time, Match Point thinks that could change in the future.

Why?

Because as time goes on companies are becoming increasingly sensitive to who is pitching their products.

The 25-year-old Nishikori is seen not only as a great athlete, but also a solid citizen. Companies that retain his services know they won’t have to worry about how he comports himself. He comes from a good family, has been in the public eye for many years, and knows how to carry himself.

“It’s crucial that endorsers be good citizens,” said Dorfman. “With social media tracking celebrities’ every step these days, any misstep is instantly made public to millions.

“There’s very little privacy any more,” added Dorfman. “Companies spending millions on endorsers demand that their spokespeople be good citizens, squeaky clean and scandal free. Any black mark on them rubs off on their sponsors. Which explains why morals clauses in endorsement contracts have gotten much longer and more detailed.”

Nishikori won four tournaments last year and made the final of the U.S. Open. This season he won the Memphis Open for the third straight year and made the final of the Acapulco Open. With demand for his services growing, Nishikori and his team have to be careful about who they bring into the fold.

“We’ve said no to several deals based on the fact that it did not fit in Kei’s lifestyle and portfolio,” van Lindonk told Forbes back in 2013.

Just to show you how sensitive Nishikori’s team is to his impeccable image, van Lindonk pointed out to Match Point that his star’s deal with Asahi is “an alcohol-free beer campaign.”

Uniqlo in particular has been very fortunate with its selection of celebrity endorsers. In addition to Nishikori, who it signed to a five-year deal back in January 2011, it also backs world No. 1 Novak Djokovic.

Fast Retailing, which operates Uniqlo, was so pleased with Nishikori’s performance at last year’s U.S. Open that its chairman, Tadashi Yanai, awarded the star a ¥100 million bonus. Half of that came from Yanai’s own assets.

While some have benefitted from fortuitous timing in signing up Nishikori, others have been left behind. The irony is that one of those looking back at what might have been is none other than Sony, one of Japan’s most famous worldwide brands.

Back in November 2011, just two months before Nishikori made his historic run to the Australian Open quarterfinals, Sony, in a cost-cutting move, let its three-year global sponsorship deal with him expire.

Talk about bad timing.

Nishikori, who was featured on the cover of Time magazine’s Asian edition in January, earned approximately $1.5 million on the court in 2014. Combined with his endorsement income, he hauled in more than $10 million for the year.

Van Lindonk has stressed how he and IMG are not looking to cash in quickly on Nishikori’s success, but to build partnerships that will last well into the future.

“The goal from a young age has always been to build a platform that would establish Kei as an international Asian star that has the ability to transcend the sport,” said van Lindonk. “There have been several Japanese tennis players who had a good business presence inside of Japan, but with Kei the vision was always bigger and broader.

“Kei has partnered with companies who are clearly looking to use Kei around the world and not just in Japan,” added van Lindonk. “With Tokyo 2020 on the horizon we will continue to carefully select endorsement opportunities that fit inside this worldwide platform.”