Why Sharapova Lost Her Sponsors

07 Nov Why Sharapova Lost Her Sponsors


A Lesson for All Sponsored Athletes

Disgraced athletes like Oscar Pistorius (charged with murder), Tiger Woods (serial philanderer) and Lance Armstrong (drug cheat) often find themselves dumped by sponsors, rejected by fans, and publicly shamed through media and online social platforms.

Maria Sharapova is no exception, having just lost her major sponsors Nike, Porsche and Tag.

The impact of a fallen athlete on sponsors is multi layered, and if not dealt with swiftly can have a significant financial impact on the company.

One of the vital factors when companies engage athletes and brand ambassadors is that their values are aligned, and that the athlete is a good representation of all that the company stands for. There is value offered by the athlete beyond simply winning events, such as offering their sponsors an increased audience, great marketing content such as photos and interview, public speaking and appearances and so much more.

All of that value is instantly lost the moment an athlete does something that causes widespread public disproval and call sinto question the ingtegrity and values of their sponsors.

Here’s how it goes:

  1. When an athlete tests positive to drugs or does anything that impacts their capacity to participate in their sport to the level which their sponsors expect them too, they are no longer able to provide the return on investment that they originally offered to their sponsors.
  2. Then, the fact that they are a drug cheat calls into question their credibility as a role model and for a company to stay on as their sponsors tars them with the same brush. The sponsors credibility is at stake, and should they stay on with the athlete the reputation of the company is going to be called into question, and many customers (and potential customers) will be lost.
  3. All of the value that the athlete was initially engaged for will now be worth very little, and makes the sponsorship futile…..giving the sponsors no choice but to end the relationship.
  4. Through her alleged drug use Maria has probably conflicted with the values of her sponsors and the values that they believe their customers (and potential customers) have, so even if it wasn’t drugs but something else (let’s say she was sponsored by a vegan meal company and she was caught eating steak!), the fact is the conflict makes her endorsement of that company hypocritical and irrelevant. Her endorsement is worthless as their values are conflicted.

Although athlete sponsorship when it goes well can be an incredibly valuable for businesses, when these relationships don’t go exactly to plan the ramifications are on a massive scale as they have such a large audience watching!

A classic sponsorship misadventure by a well-known Australian was the Shane Warne ‘quit smoking’ advertising campaign debacle. Shane had made a commitment to an international pharmaceutical company to not only be an ambassador for their product (nicotine substitute gum and patches), but to quit smoking himself. Rule #1 of sponsorship: never promise something you cannot guarantee to deliver.

We saw Shane on TV ads, smiling in magazine ads and generally being a shining example of the products effectiveness to those who wanted to quit smoking. He looked healthy and happy, proving that the normal every day bloke could quit smoking ‘with some help’. Those who may have previously had misgivings about poor Shane, who had been demonised in the media at times for his slightly questionable behaviour, started to come around to the concept that, with the right support, a leopard really could change its spots.

And then, just days shy of the 4 month contractual period for the campaign, there it was plastered on the cover of every national paper: Shane smoking a cigarette at a recent event. Then and there, not only did Shane’s integrity go down the gurgler once again, but the credibility of the company’s product was completely diminished and every dollar they had spent on the ad campaign was wasted. Furthermore, they would now have to come up with some pretty intensive and clever damage control to try to salvage their status as a real aid to quitting smoking.

What looked like the epitome of the perfect sponsorship (it was commercially viable and had a real touchy-feely element to it with our larrikin Shane showing his vulnerability as a recovering smoking addict) has now become a warning to all those companies who were considering (or already engaged) in relationships with individuals who, if they behaved badly, could create some really damaging media attention for their company.

We are unforgiving of athletes who cheat. We all hold dear the pretext that sport is sport (and it’s just a game right), so no matter what Maria, or any other disgraced athletes say is their reason for cheating, for most of the population there is no excuse.

While it may seem harsh that sponsors just ‘dumped’ her so quickly, they are in damage control and while they have invested time and money in Sharapova, they must put their business success first.

If Sharapova should be found innocent, as she so calmly insists she is, it feels like the damage has already been done and she will have a very difficult time winning back the trust and respect of the public, let alone engaging the kind of sponsorship she has lost. If sponsors were bonds then she had the AAA type, in the future she will be lucky to get BBB’s…..she will now, always, be a risk to potential sponsors.

This incident with Sharapova, is a good and timely reminder (as we approach Rio 2016) to sponsored athletes that they represent the companies who sponsor them and need to conduct themselves professionally and ethically, and with respect for the values of their sponsors, as well as for their own reputations!

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Vickie Saunders

Vickie is the world's leading expert on commercial relationships for individuals, businesses and sports organisations.