Tennis down under: The Australian Open as the Grand Slam of Asian Pacific Capital

The 2015 tennis season begins on Monday with the Australian Open. The tournament bills itself as the “Grand Slam of Asia Pacific”; it is also the grand slam of Asian Pacific Capital. Tennis, like most professional sports, is a mix of state and private monies, and showcases not only athletics but capital itself. The investment bank Credit Suisse describes its global brand advisor, Roger Federer, with three words: “Idol. Icon. Investment.” This year, Caroline Woolard and Leigh Claire La Berge will be charting the relationship between ATP tennis players and the companies who sponsor them for our Bell Coin Index. Does stock price correlate to past or future performance? How do endorsement strategies and on-court strategies dovetail and diverge? Will the fact that leading stars of the men’s tour, including Federer and Andy Murray, have started their own management companies transform their games?

Sports figures are commonly mentioned in global tax avoidance schemes through their multi-national earnings and residence. The French Davis cup team lives in Switzerland, Christopher Clarey reported in the New York Times­, and Rafael Nadal has been mentioned in tax avoidance schemes in Spain. But so far no active tennis players have been dogged by the insider trading rumors that have trailed golf’s Phil Mickelson. Boris Becker narrowly avoided prison time for tax fraud; Steffi Graf’s father and coach Peter Graf was not so fortunate and went to prison for similar crimes. British sports writer Boris Johnson has suggested that tax rates might account for individual tennis player’s performance — could high British taxation explain some of Andy Murray’s poorer seasons? — but this individual focus doesn’t seem to capture the corporate nature of tennis.

A look around any tennis court will offer images of IT and corporate solutions, investment banks, alcoholic beverages, watches, and cars. The Australian Open counts KIA as its main sponsor, with Rolex, Jacob’s Creek and ANZ playing major supporting roles. IBM is its technology sponsor. Accordingly, the top three seeds will play representing similar sites of capitalization: number 1 seed Novak Djokovic will metonymize Peugeot, Seiko, and Head; second seed Roger Federer represents/is represented by Mercedes, Rolex, Moet and Chandon, Nike, and Credit Suisse (among others); and third seed Rafa Nadal rounds out the commodity spectacle with Kia, Nike, Mapfre, and Richard Mille (among others). The FIRE (finance, insurance, real estate) industry is always courtside.

As many commentators have noted, last year was an exciting one in men’s tennis with the arrival of two new grand slam champions whose sponsors cannot compare with Federer et al in terms of market capitalization: Stan Wawrinka and Marin Cilic. Furthermore, in the two-week, best of five set format, it seems prudent to go with the Blue Chip Big Four: Roger Federer, Novak Dkojovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray. But the pre-tournament focus is on KIA. South Korea’s second largest vehicle manufacturer, Kia is not coming off the best fiscal year — with a relatively flat stock price, slow projected growth and a tepid earnings report. Let’s hope this year’s Australian Open performs better than its major sponsor’s stock!

Tomorrow — breaking down the men’s draw by sponsorship agreement.

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