Tennis superstar Sharapova has flunked a drugs test and been suspended from the sport. That’s astounding in itself but the alacrity with which key sponsors such as Nike, Porsche and Tag Heuer have abandoned her is also quite astonishing…
So firstly, what is the background? Yesterday the five-time Grand Slam champion attended a personal press conference at a Los Angeles hotel with the industry predicting that she was about retire at the tender age of 28. As it transpires she had set up the meeting to confess that she had been caught using a banned substance by the World Anti Doping Agency (which I guess effectively means she was announcing her retirement anyway).
The tests, taken at the Australian Open in Melbourne a few months ago, proved that she had taken Mildronate (or Meldonium) which has been prohibited in all professional sports since 1st January 2016. The drug is capable of significantly enhancing physical performance and endurance. As such it has been likened to the blood-boosting substance EPO, made infamous by shamed celebrity cycling ‘juicer’ Lance Armstrong.
By Sharapova’s own admission she has been taking the drug for the best part of a decade to treat ‘diabetes’ (which is rather odd given that it’s a drug prescribed for heart conditions) and had simply continued it’s usage without being aware of the consequences of its relatively new outlawed status.
So that’s the back story but you can read more about that pretty much anywhere on that interweb thingy right now. What I’m more fascinated by is the way in which several of her key sponsors have rapidly deserted the top earning female star like rats leaving the proverbial sinking ship. Literally within hours of the announcement, Nike ditched the Russian sports idol from her most lucrative contract. She had signed an initial 8 year deal with them (extended in 2010) for a cool $70million which also included her very own range of sports apparel.
Within rapid succession Swiss luxury watch manufacturer TAG Heuer and prestige German car marque Porsche followed suit. According to Forbes she earns around $30million a year in endorsements which also include American Express, Avon and Evian. So far these sponsors are not commenting upon the situation.
So why are some of these brands so quick to ditch their stars when the going gets tough? I believe the key reason is down to three high profile sporting superstar scandals of the past 7 years, which have got progressively more serious as each one has occurred.
Back in 2009 we had the lurid ‘tabloid’ stories of golf legend Tiger Woods being exposed as a serial philanderer. Despite several brands deciding to jettison Woods as soon as the story broke, Nike took the brave decision to stand by their man.Alan Ferguson, MD of marketing consultancy The Sports Business claimed that Nike’s:
“whole golf proposition was built around him. They had spent millions of dollars and simply couldn’t afford to drop him”
Or maybe because his impropriety wasn’t deemed serious enough? That particular kind of ‘cheating’ may be considered immoral but isn’t directly connected to his sporting prowess.
Next up? The aforementioned Tour de France drugs cheat, Lance Armstrong. Nike stood steadfastly by their iconic brand spokesman for many years despite constant allegations of him being an EPO drug cheat. When the truth finally came out, Nike admitted that they had been “misled” by Armstrong for the best part of 10 years and dropped him like a hot stone.
And most recently, the ultimate ignominy of Paralympic champion Oscar Pistorius who murdered his girlfriend in a hail of bullets on St Valentines Day 2011. As soon as the news broke his sponsors (including Nike, Thierry Mugler and Oakley) were quick to distance themselves from the South African ‘Blade Runner’.Nigel Currie, ex-director of sports marketing agency Brand Rapport and now head of NC Partnership put it most succinctly:
“This is very different to the Tiger Woods and Lance Armstrong cases; this is life and death. There’s no coming back from this”
So given these three sensational / high profile cases, it really doesn’t come as a huge surprise to me that brands are being more swift and decisive in their crisis management. Sharapova has clearly transgressed and publicly acknowledged the situation for what it is. Despite offering some (rather implausible) mitigating circumstances, she has admitted to taking the banned drug and has accepted liability in the matter – Just (Don’t) Do it. That said, she is now effectively ‘damaged goods’ and it’s clear that major brands don’t want any part of that negative association.
So to answer the initial premise of this piece, I don’t believe that her sponsors have acted rashly. Given the circumstances, they have simply acted swiftly and sensibly. What do you think? We’re her sponsors right to drop her immediately or should they have waited for the results of the upcoming inquiry?