Novak Djokovic may have been deluged with negative publicity over his visa row and anti-vax stance but that is unlikely to cost him any major sponsorship deals, say industry experts.
Djokovic looks set to play the Australian Open next week after successfully appealing the decision to deny him entry to the country over questions about his Covid-19 history.
Yet despite apparently winning his legal battle, the episode has only cemented his status as one of sport’s most divisive characters, polarising his critics and admirers to new extremes.
Sponsors have increasingly faced calls to cut ties with toxic sports stars and teams, as Yorkshire County Cricket Club found in the wake of the Azeem Rafiq racism scandal.
But with Djokovic fancied to add to the tally of 20 Grand Slam titles he shares with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, those in sponsorship expect the brands who pay the Serb an estimated £22m every year to stay loyal.
“It won’t have come as a surprise to Djokovic’s sponsors that he isn’t keen on receiving a Covid vaccine,” said Neil Hopkins, global head of strategy at M&C Saatchi Sport and Entertainment.
“Their loyalty is of course in no small part due to the fact that he is on the cusp of becoming the world’s most successful male tennis player of all time. Should he get the opportunity to play in the Australian Open and go on to win it then his sponsors will be delighted.”
Merrick Haydon, managing director of rEvolution, agrees. “Assuming that the Djokovic case doesn’t take another significant twist over the coming days then I don’t think his commercial appeal will dramatically change,” Haydon said.
“Djokovic has always polarised global fan opinion, particularly when framed against Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, and he has significantly fewer endorsement deals than both.
“The likes of Lacoste, Head, Hublot and Peugeot, however, have partnered with him due to his continued success on the court and they will likely stand by him through this period too, and be waiting to celebrate with him when he inevitably breaks the men’s Grand Slam record. Indeed, Hublot has already publicly backed his ‘personal decision’ on the vaccine.”
Djokovic’s emergence as a poster boy for the anti-vax movement could put off any new sponsors from signing him up, says agency founder Simon Dent.
“I don’t see any of his brand partners leaving him but I don’t imagine he will be signing any new deals in the coming months while Covid is still with us,” Dent said.
It also risks damaging the 34-year-old’s long-term appeal, which is likely to wane slightly as he reaches the end of his playing days.
“Over time, there may be some incremental damage done to his reputation which could affect the value of future deals and he should avoid becoming too closely aligned with anti-vaccination groups to mitigate this,” added Hopkins.
Djokovic is not the only sportsperson to decline a Covid-19 vaccine, however, and commercial partners would be setting “a very dangerous precedent” by ending deals on that basis, believes Dent.
“The vaccination status of sports stars has become everyone’s business. It’s a very personal decision and Novak has medical reasons for not wanting to be vaccinated,” Dent added.
“I’ve spoken to a number of top flight football and rugby players over the last year who aren’t vaccinated and they have their reasons.
“We all have friends who have their reasons for not being vaccinated and this will be the same within decision making groups at brands and companies who sponsor Novak. The heavy-handed approach is not going to help those in the anti-vax camp change their minds.”