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Athletes find success on the pitch -- and pitching products

TOKYO/NEW DELHI -- When it comes to the business of sports, Asia is scoring big. Not only is its growing middle class attracting attention from market-savvy teams, the region is also producing a growing list of world-class athletes capable of commanding lucrative sponsorship deals.

     Four of the 100 highest-paid athletes in the world, as ranked by U.S. magazine Forbes in June, are Asian nationals.

     Leading them is boxer Manny Pacquiao of the Philippines, ranked second. He is followed by Indian cricketer Mahendra Singh Dhoni in 23rd, Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka, who plays for the New York Yankees, 58th, and Japanese tennis player Kei Nishikori, ranked 92nd. American Jeremy Lin, a basketball player with the NBA's Charlotte Hornets whose parents are Taiwanese, placed 97th.

Manny the mighty

Pacquiao's "Fight of the Century" against Floyd Mayweather in Las Vegas on May 2 drew global attention far beyond the sporting world.

     U.S. sports TV network ESPN reported that the match generated nearly $600 million in revenue overnight: $400 million from pay-per-view TV, $72 million from ticket sales, $13.2 million in sponsorships and $40 million from overseas broadcasting rights.

     Although he lost the WBO welterweight title by decision that night, Pacquiao reportedly earned $125 million, the largest purse of his career so far.

     Born in 1978 to a poor farming family on the island of Mindanao, he became a pro boxer at 16 to escape a life of poverty. He went to Thailand, where he won the WBC flyweight title at 19, and then to the U.S. in 2001.

     His first career-advancing match there came in November 2003 against Marco Antonio Barrera of Mexico. He caused a sensation by knocking out Barrera, one of the Hispanic boxing stars largely responsible for the sport's popularity at the time. 

     Pacquiao gradually advanced from lightweight to middleweight. His technical knockout of Oscar De La Hoya in December 2008 made him a superstar. Since then, Pacquiao has consistently earned at least $20 million per match. Over his career, he has fought in an unprecedented 10 weight classes -- a range of roughly 20kg -- and become a champion in six.

     The term "hometown decision" exists for a reason, and for athletes competing internationally, the difference between home and away can be intimidatingly vast. But Filipino boxers seem to relish the challenge of beating an opponent on his home turf.

     This pluckiness seems to reflect the overall character of the Philippines, where jobs are scarce and people often leave home to work overseas. The money Filipino expats send home is equal to about 10% of the nation's gross domestic product, and Pacquiao is a symbol for his many emigrant compatriots. 

     In November 2014, Malaysian budget carrier AirAsia joined the ranks of "Pac Man" sponsors, alongside Nike of the U.S., Philippine cellular-services provider Smart Communications and Cafe Puro, also from the boxer's home country. 

     Pacquiao's appeal among Asian fans is undeniable. His 2013 and 2014 fights in Macau were a boon for casino resorts looking to raise the quality of their entertainment and move away from their old gaming-dependent business models.

     Turning 37 in December, Pacquiao is approaching retirement age. With his injured shorlder, no one knows how many more times he will appear in the ring, but his influence will likely continue long after he hangs up his gloves.

Just the thing

Like Pacquiao, Indian cricketer Dhoni is an advertiser's dream come true. 

     "Captain Cool," as the national team's skipper for limited-overs formats is often called, is a skilled wicketkeeper and batsman who rarely shows emotion on the pitch, even during the most nail-biting of finishes.

     The 34-year-old father of one led his team to victory in the Cricket World Cup in 2011 and to the semifinals in 2015. Under his captaincy, India maintained the top ranking in test cricket for 18 months from December 2009 and won the World Twenty20 in 2007.

     Dhoni, who is from the city of Ranchi in eastern Jharkhand state, has done endorsements for two-wheeler maker TVS Motor, telecom service provider Aircel, Future Group's retail chain Big Bazaar, PepsiCo and Reebok, to name just a few. According to Forbes, Dhoni earned $31 million in the year through June 1, including $27 million from endorsement deals. The London School of Marketing recently listed Dhoni as the ninth "most marketable sports star" in the world. In terms of brand value, he outranked Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Kobe Bryant.

     Analysts say the skipper, with his humble background, appeals to the masses.

     "Coming from a small place like Ranchi, Dhoni was probably just what advertisers catering to India's middle class, like Big Bazaar, were looking for," said sports writer C. Rajshekhar Rao.

     Cricket icon Sachin Tendulkar, who is from Mumbai and debuted in the late 1980s, was "probably a reflection of a changing India in metropolitan cities at that time," Rao said. Similarly, he added, Dhoni came in at a stage when India was growing beyond major metropolitan areas and that is why a lot of people feel they can relate to him.

     In March, Dhoni became the first Indian captain and the third in the world to lead his side to 100 one-day wins, after Australia's Ricky Ponting and Allan Border.

     Arvind Sharma, a photojournalist who has captured Dhoni's innings both in India and abroad, says the captain has consistently performed well in critical situations.

     Talking about Dhoni's personal style, Sharma pointed to the range of hairstyles the cricketer has sported since his international debut in 2004. "He's a cool guy on and off the field."

     Dhoni also captains Indian Premier League team Chennai Super Kings, which was one of the two IPL franchises suspended recently for two years by a panel appointed by India's top court over a corruption scandal involving their officials. 

Breakthrough performance

Pro tennis player Nishikori made the Forbes top 100 list for the first time this year, having earned $19.5 million. Other male tennis pros ahead of him are Roger Federer of Switzerland in fifth place, Novak Djokovic of Serbia in 13th, Rafael Nadal of Spain, ranked 22nd, and Andy Murray of the U.K. in 64th.

     With so many top-notch players, professional tennis is enjoying a golden period. This year's French Open purse was about 28 million euros ($30.9 million), up 3 million euros from 2014, while the Wimbledon Championship 2015 offered 26.75 million pounds ($41.7 million), up 7% on the year.

Kei Nishikori   © AP/Kyodo

     And as the status of the game rises, so does the marketing value of its players. Paired with American coach Michael Chang, who has Taiwanese roots, Nishikori's big break came last year when he took second in the U.S. Open, the best men's singles performance by a Japanese player at a Grand Slam tournament. This instantly raised his popularity -- and his sponsorship value.

     On July 13, Nishikori extended his sponsorship agreement with Nissin Foods Holdings through December 2020, the year of the Tokyo Olympics. He signed a sponsorship agreement with Lixil Group in April, bringing the total number of corporate sponsors to 14.

     According to Forbes, $15 million of Nishikori's $19.5 million take in 2015 came from sponsorship deals.

     After his second-place turn at the U.S. Open last year, Swiss luxury watchmaker TAG Heuer saw sales of the model worn by its "ambassador" take off.

     Apparel retailer Uniqlo has sponsored Nishikori since January 2011. IMG Academy, which has managed Nishikori since his second-place U.S. Open showing, says it has received numerous inquiries from companies interested in sponsoring him.

Nikkei staff writer Kenji Goroku contributed to this story.

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