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Volume 23 No. 14
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Sharapova feels brands’ wrath after failing test

The image of Maria Sharapova on Monday was far different than how she's appeared through the years on court and for her sponsors.
On the pyramid of transgressions, an athlete admitting to ingesting a recently banned substance due to professed ignorance that the substance was no longer approved would appear less severe than, for example, a player who knocked out a woman in an elevator. Or a sprinter who was twice suspended for doping. Or a coach tied to a pedophile scandal.

But the violation by that first athlete, Maria Sharapova, sparked Nike to suspend its ties with her within hours of her admission last week, whereas the brand giant still has Justin Gatlin, the runner twice suspended for doping, under contract. And it took Nike 206 days to distance itself from Ray Rice in 2014, well enough the 247 days it took the company to end its relationship in 2012 with Penn State’s Joe Paterno, who stood accused of turning a blind eye to the Jerry Sandusky child rape scandal.

“There is a definitely before and after FIFA,” said Tim Crow, CEO of London-based sports marketing firm Synergy, referring to the scandals that rocked FIFA last year and led sponsors, successfully, to demand change. “[FIFA sponsors] Coke, McDonald’s, Adidas and all these guys have given brands generally permission to be more vocal.

“Brands are now expected to have a voice,” he added.

“And in the era of social media, it is demanded.”

Added Steve Martin, global CEO of M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment, “No question there has been almost a stake in the ground after FIFA and the IAAF the last few months,” the latter referring to the track and field scandals at the International Association of Athletics Federations. “Brands used to kowtow to the rights holders, the individual. The tide is turning.”

Some observers were questioning last week whether there is a double standard with Sharapova and Nike. Ben Sturner, founder and CEO of Leverage Agency, pointing to Gatlin, said, “They offered him a new deal [in March 2015] and he has been convicted twice.” While not convicted in the legal sense, Gatlin served two doping bans, including a four-year suspension between 2006 and 2010. Nike signed him a year ago.

Serena Williams, speaking last week at a press conference before a tennis exhibition, appeared to raise the specter that Sharapova is being treated differently because she is a woman when she was asked about the contrast with scandals involving Tiger Woods and Lance Armstrong — scandal-tarred athletes Nike stood by for long periods of time (and, in Woods’ case, continues to stand by).

“In sport and in life there is always a double standard; always,” said Williams, herself a Nike endorser. “And I think that is something that … everyone knows, whether it is a race thing or sex thing. There has always been a double standard, a difference.”

She then seemed to backtrack, though, adding, “However, this is a different thing, and I think as Maria said, she is willing to take full responsibility.”

Sharapova did take responsibility, saying she failed to click a link in an email late last year that showed newly added products to the World Anti-Doping Agency’s banned substances list, including one she had been taking for a decade. There were reports last week that she had received other correspondences on the subject, as well.

It’s often the job of agents and others in a players’ circle to weed through what can be dense and tricky communications, though, leading to some speculation within tennis that someone at Sharapova’s agency, WME-IMG, would take the fall. Her agent is Max Eisenbud, and he oversees a large team that manages the Sharapova business. An IMG spokeswoman, in response to a query to Eisenbud about any possible fallout, wrote in an email: “Maria has acknowledged this was her mistake and she makes no excuses. Everyone around her feels terrible this happened and we’re exploring how and why it happened. But Maria has instructed us that there should be no finger-pointing and her focus is on her future. She wants to work with the [International Tennis Federation] and play tennis again. That is our focus.”

Sharapova pulls in about $20 million annually from endorsements and other off-court business, a good chunk of that coming from Nike. Nike was not commenting last week beyond its statement expressing surprise over Sharapova’s failed drug test.

For Sharapova, the timing of her news likely did not help her. While Nike waited lengthy periods before severing ties with athletes like Michael Vick in 2007 and Ray Rice two years ago, it took the company only two days to drop boxing endorser Manny Pacquiao after he made derogatory comments about same-sex marriage last month.

“[W]e may indeed be witnessing a turn in the right direction in which sports brands do not support athletes who break rules or the law,” said Larry Chiagouris, a professor of marketing at Pace University’s Lubin School of Business in New York and a member of the board of directors of the American Marketing Association.

Nike is not alone, with Tag Heuer breaking off Sharapova renewal talks with IMG. Porsche also suspended its deal with her.

Some of her sponsors have stayed with her, though, including Evian; racket company Head, which issued a lengthy press release supporting her; and Supergoop!, a skin-care brand Sharapova partially owns.