Rafael Nadal swept the French Open and Wimbledon this year and passed Roger Federer to become the top-ranked tennis player in the world. Yet the 24-year-old Spaniard struggles to be more than a minor celebrity to most Americans.
As the U.S. Open begins next week in New York, Nadal needs to win to boost his recognition and earning potential among Americans, said Matt Fleming, a Dallas-based senior account manager for the celebrity talent division at Omnicom Group’s The Marketing Arm. Nadal lags behind 29-year-old Federer and 27-year-old Andy Roddick, an American whose only major victory came in 2003, in marketing surveys.
“He’s just not that visible here in the States,” Fleming said. “Winning here, and consistently winning here, is the key.”
Victory in New York is what Nadal has been focusing on this year. Even while capturing five titles this spring and summer in Europe, winning 35 of 36 matches in a stretch from April to July, he was aiming at the only major tournament that he hasn’t won. Winning would make him the youngest man to secure the career Grand Slam in the professional era, which began in 1968.
“For sure the U.S. Open is going to be one of my goals for the rest of my career,” Nadal told reporters after winning his second Wimbledon title in July.
Two nights ago at a promotional event in New York, Nadal said the U.S. Open is more difficult for him than the sport’s other three marquee tournaments because it is at the end of the season and he is often worn out. This year he said he is more confident of success.
“I had a very good summer, probably the best summer of my life,” Nadal said. “And I arrived here without physical problems like I did in other years.”
Nadal heads into the U.S. Open significantly below No. 2 Federer and No. 9 Roddick in recognition.
Fleming oversees the Davie Brown Index, which measures celebrity. Nadal ranks 1,541st out of 2,500 celebrities on the index, while Federer is No. 903 and Roddick is No. 1,031. Nadal was recognized by 35 percent of consumers polled, as compared with 59 percent for Federer and 51 percent for Roddick.
Nadal also trails Federer and Roddick on Q Scores, which Manhasset, New York-based Marketing Evaluations, Inc. uses to measure popularity and appeal among consumers.
The Spaniard was recognized by 42 percent of sports fans in the company’s survey of 29 tennis players this spring, and earned a Q Score of 18. Federer and Roddick were recognized by 57 percent of fans. Federer had a Q Score of 25, while Roddick’s was 18.
In a survey of the general population, including non-sports fans, Nadal was recognized by 23 percent of respondents -- and just 9 percent of women in the 18-34 age group.
Henry Schafer, executive vice president of Marketing Evaluations, said Nadal needs more exposure on TV talk shows to broaden his U.S. appeal beyond the tennis court.
“The survey of the general population is a good indication of whether someone can become an iconic figure, and Nadal has not been able to do that in this country,” Schafer said. “If people are not into sports, they just don’t know him.”
Nadal’s spokesman, Benito Perez-Barbadillo, declined to answer e-mail questions about the player’s popularity.
Jimmy Connors, 57, a five-time U.S. Open winner and now an analyst for the Tennis Channel, dismisses the significance of marketing surveys. Connors praises Nadal’s “old-school attitude” and says that makes him popular with fans who appreciate exciting tennis.
“You don’t see guys like him jumping around and running out to the baseline and diving and trying after every ball, that’s a long-lost art,” Connors said in a media conference call this week. “Nadal grinds it out on a point-to-point basis and shows his passion when he wins a big point, and is not afraid to let you really see how he’s feeling.”
Nadal has won eight Grand Slam titles to Federer’s 16. The Spaniard has career winnings of $32.8 million, according to the ATP’s website, while Federer has won $56.5 million. Nadal also trails Federer at some bookmakers.
Even though Nadal has a record of 52-7 this year and Federer is 39-10, British bookmaker William Hill this week made Federer the 5-2 favorite to win the U.S. Open. Nadal is tied for second favorite at 11-4 with Briton Andy Murray.
$14 Million Deficit
Nadal’s lagging consumer recognition also is partly to blame for his inability to keep up with Federer in endorsements. Forbes magazine estimated in September 2009 that Federer’s income for the previous 12 months was $36 million, compared with $20 million for Nadal.
Nadal’s endorsement agreements include Mapfre, Spain’s largest insurer; South Korea’s Kia Motors Corp. and French racket manufacturer Babolat. His only American sponsor is Nike Inc.
Though Nadal’s English has improved in the past few years, he still is not as fluent as Federer, a Swiss. Jim Andrews, senior vice president of Chicago-based IEG Sponsorship Report, said that limits Nadal’s consumer appeal.
“He’s certainly very charming, he’s got a great personality, so I think a lot of companies would be interested in using him,” Andrews said. “The thing that limits him, especially in the U.S., is his language skills. If you’re a company and you’re thinking, ‘I want to use this guy for a lot of communications,’ that’s something you’re going to look at.”
Winning the U.S. Open could land Nadal two or three more sponsorships worth $1 million each a year, said Steve Rosner, co-founder of 16W Marketing of Rutherford, New Jersey.
Simon Chadwick, a professor of sports business strategy and marketing at the Coventry University Business School in England, said Nadal can build a strong brand if he stays healthy.
“Nadal has started to move out of Federer’s shadow, he is consistently succeeding across the slams and his PR is much better managed,” Chadwick said in an e-mail interview. “His commercial value, plus his sponsorship/endorsement contracts have really strengthened. If he can win the U.S. Open, it really does have the potential to propel him from being just an A-minus lister to being an A lister, possibly even an A-plus lister.”