The sports world was rocked last week when women’s tennis sensation Maria Sharapova announced she had failed a drug screening, testing positive for the recently banned substance meldonium. While the International Tennis Federation investigates the circumstances of her drug usage and debates on what, if any, her punishment will be, several brands have already reacted to the news by cutting ties or suspending sponsorship deals with the 28-year-old Russian superstar.
Since the announcement Nike, Porsche and Swiss watchmaker TAG Heuer have suspended or walked away from using Sharapova in their advertisements, while racquet manufacturer Head announced it was sticking with Sharapova, and would extend their sponsorship deal with her. Previously, Sharapova had been named the highest-paid female athlete by Forbes, raking in a total o f $29.7 million between June 2014 and June 2015, with the lion’s share of that coming from endorsements.
The moves have been seen by some as premature, especially when compared to how major brands handled past scandals surrounding mega-endorsers like Lance Armstrong, Michael Phelps and Kobe Bryant. Additionally, since the scandal broke, Sharapova has received a fair amount of praise for the way she has addressed her positive drug test in the public sphere.
“I do think she’s handled it well,” says Trevor Wade, global marketing director for strategic brands and design firm Landor. “Sometimes when you are honest and you do get ahead of it, you can build good will with the public or with your customers. They understand that people and brands aren’t perfect, and so they may be more willing to listen and watch you grow from your mistake.”
“We always recommend that brands [that are accused or guilty of a scandal] get ahead of things like this,” Wade continues. “That they come out right away. That they’re transparent about what’s going on, that they acknowledge this misstep, they apologize for it, and they outline steps they’re going to take to remedy the situation.”
Todd Fischer, a senior vice president at global experiential marketing agency GMR Marketing, said that it’s in the best interest of brands that are affiliated with embattled celebrities, athletes or brands to act swiftly and decisively, even in the face of a pending investigation. They need to head off any potential backlash arising on social media calling them out on their perceived support of a controversial sports star, Fischer explains.
“Those brands know that they have to make a statement, and the longer they stay silent, the more scrutiny they face,” Fischer says.
Both Wade and Fischer say that when brands sign high-profile sponsors, there is a lot of vetting that takes place to see is the celebrity is a good fit as a brand ambassador.
“I think that when brands undertake relationships [with athletes], they are hoping for an association between her personal and athletic performance and their brand,” Wade says. “Sharapova’s brand is known for being very precise, very determined, high-performing, she’s a fighter. … With an athletic brand, it doesn’t get much better than that.”
Even then, though, Fischer acknowledges there is a risk with players even like Sharapova, who up until her positive test, was the epitome of an unvarnished champion.
“Whether it’s Tiger, Sharapova or Kobe or anybody else along the way, I think brands are becoming more aware and savvier to the idea that this can happen to any individual and any endorsement deal out there,” Fischer says.
With Sharapova out of action, the pressure is on executives responsible for brand creative to replace any planned advertising. Depending on the specific brand and how far along they were in campaign planning, that could be as easy as swapping another athlete for Sharapova, or it could entail developing a whole new brand strategy.
“What we’ve seen historically is brands that have other endorsers in their stable will bring them to the front and kind of take their place. For brands that don’t have other endorsers, they’ll probably take a break from [celebrity sponsors],” Fischer says.
As for Sharapova, it remains to be seen what penalties she will face. Because of her previously revered status and the way she handled the positive drug test, it’s entirely possible that she could bounce back in a short amount of time if she receives a light penalty, Fischer says.
“History would say that we’ve seen a lot of second and third chances in the sports world, both in the minds of fans and brands,” Fischer says.
If it’s a long-term penalty, however, Wade says Sharapova’s best days as an athlete and an endorser could be behind her. “She is old for a tennis player and she is probably at the end of her career. … If she’s not on the tennis court, what is the Sharapova brand offering them?”