What’s the real value of a logo fight? For most emerging brands, that answer is never obvious. Logos are never static designs, and revising it, or changing it all together, is often an option. But what if that logo belongs to one of the top tennis professionals, and he loses control over it because of a contract he signed when he was still an emerging brand, long before his current fame?

That’s exactly what’s happening to Roger Federer, a twenty-time grand slam winner for whom his initials have defined an era of tennis competition around the world. Federer, who is still recognized as one of the best players of all time, is an iconic sports figure around the globe. Because of his fame and success on the courts, his brand is also one of the most valuable in the market for tennis and other apparel and merchandise, and his logo fight makes sense.

Unfortunately, as the sports world is now learning, Federer doesn’t own the rights to his logo, even though it is comprised of his initials, RF! Early in his career—before he had achieved his global notoriety as a tennis phenomenon—he signed a deal with Nike that gave it the rights to his logo. That might have seemed ok at the time—after all, the deal with Nike was worth tens of millions of dollars over his career.

But just recently, he decided to end his 24-year partnership with Nike, and has switched to the Japanese manufacturer Uniqlo. I’m sure they cut him a massive deal, but it didn’t allow him to migrate his famous logo. That belongs to Nike, and that’s where the logo fight now stands. Here’s the history:

In 2003, when Federer was just emerging as a tennis superstar, his wife and her father developed the RF logo specifically for a perfume with his name on it. Federal liked the look of the logo so much that he talked with Nike about creating a marketing strategy around the initials. It made its first appearance on his 2006 Wimbledon blazer. The rest is logo and brand history.

The problem is, Nike is claiming ownership of the logo even with his move to the Uniqlo brand. And legal observers say the claim is solid. Federer is clearly not happy with this development. Here’s what the Swiss superstar told one reporter recently:

“The RF logo is with Nike at the moment, but it will come to me at some point. I hope rather sooner than later that Nike can be nice and helpful in the process to bring it over to me. It’s also something that was very important for me, for the fans really. Look, it’s the process. But the good news is that it will come with me at one point.”

That might be wishful thinking, and he may be trying to play nice in the hope that Nike executives will have pity on him. But I wouldn’t be so sure. Nike has no incentive to help a competitor take revenue from a product line and brand that it invested time and resources to build. The answer may play out in court, just not a tennis court.

The lesson here is pretty simple: Protect your logo and brand trademark from day one. Make sure your company has complete control over its use and its future, and don’t sign that away to a partner. It’s one of any brand’s most valuable assets, and needs to be treated that way.

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