In November 2009, classic tennis brand Sergio Tacchini signed Novak Djokovic to a 10-year sponsorship deal.
It was an incredible coup for the brand which filed for bankruptcy in 2007 and was bought by Chinese businessman Billy Ngok in 2008 for $42 million.
The story got even better as Djokovic rose to No. 1 in the world and won three of four Grand Slams in 2011, including the US Open on Monday.
“I am really honored to be a part of that brand who had a lot of No. 1’s and to be able to revive the brand," Djokovic told CNBC before the US Open. To be able to become No. 1 with Tacchini, with the tennis brand, is even a bigger pleasure."
But the tale isn't as positive as it should be for Sergio Tacchini. Although terms of Djokovic's deal aren't clear, insiders say the company is likely going to have a hard time paying off his multi-million bonuses this year. Why? Because the brand is barely eeking out a profit and its production and distribution have hurt its ability to capitalize on the 24-year-old Serb's great run.
While Nike and Adidas have had the gear being worn by their players in the US Open in stores for at least a month, Sergio Tacchini doesn't even have its Djokovic US Open designs in stores yet.
It's expected in the last week of this month or even into October.
"People come in asking for his stuff, but I'm a tennis and ski shop and I'm moving into winter by the time we get his apparel," said Bill Silverman, owner of High Country Ski & Sports, a specialty shop in Livingston, NJ.
"It's so much hit or miss, how am I ever going to plan a marketing campaign around Djokovic's Sergio Tacchini gear?" said Greg Wolf, who runs Midwest Sports in Cincinnati. "I certainly can't run a TV ad or put something in a magazine and I can't see how Sergio can justify paying him with the small amount of product that they are selling."
Wolf said that if Djokovic was with the right brand, he'd be a big seller.
"The guy speaks five languages," Wolf said. "He's articulate, he's funny, women love him. He's not Federer. But McEnroe wasn't Borg. We don't need another Federer. We're 'Federer'd' out. He's got the personality to make the needle move."
For Brad Blume, managing partner of Tennis Express, the largest tennis retailer in Texas, the lack of product he has to sell has been frustration.
"We closed for an hour one time and I had this guy from Mexico banging on our door," Blume said. "I thought when we opened, he'd go get some Federer or Nadal stuff, but he went straight to Sergio Tacchini. He wanted to take back Djokovic apparel to Mexico."
Blume says tennis brands don't advertise much so the advertising takes place by the player wearing the gear on television. Much is lost, however, when the gear doesn't hit shops until after the event is over.
Designs that Sergio Tacchini had Djokovic wear during the French Open this year, hit Tennis Express two months after the tournament is over.
"It's not only that the apparel comes two months late," said Brian Hirschfeld, owner of Holabird Sports, a tennis and racket sports retailer located in Baltimore. "We were shorted on tons of product. We had to tell the customer who was waiting for it for months that they'd have to wait longer. It has been very frustrating."
Quietly, Nike and adidas are salivating at the possibility of the very marketable Djokovic falling into their hands, speculating that Tacchini can't keep paying Djokovic his heavily incentivized deal without better turnaround and sales. That's one of the reasons why Adidas, who mistakenly dropped him to spend the big bucks on Andy Murray, are catering to his every need. They still give him free shoes, which he wears since Sergio Tacchini doesn't have a shoe line.
With Roger Federer and Serena Williams winding down their careers, guys like Wolf are concerned about having a star as big as Djokovic with a company that hasn't been able to figure out how to capitalize.
"In order to become a big brand, you have to get lucky and sign a rock star," Wolf said. "They did that. That's the easy part. But they can't keep paying him if they don't know how to backfill the product."
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