For years, Maria Sharapova’s sponsors had a pretty easy decision to make about whether she made a good spokeswoman for their products. The tennis star won Grand Slams, looked great in any garment, and spoke fluent English and Russian. She had no major scandals or suspensions and even been recognized for her charity work. She probably wasn’t perfect (see grunting, injuries), but if you wanted someone to serve as the face of your product, you could hardly go wrong even at the huge fees she commanded.
Last week, Nike, Tag Heuer, and Porsche abruptly dropped her from their endorser rolls.
Sharapova didn’t retire from playing. She didn’t sign deals with her sponsors’ competition. She didn’t injure anyone. She failed a drug test at the Australian Open and the International Tennis Federation (ITF) gave her a four-year suspension for it.
One can understand how the companies no longer saw value in association with the player. She will have significantly diminished visibility in the coming years and the failed test will create negative associations from which brands may want to distance themselves. Speculation has also posited that Sharapova’s recent decline in the rankings contributed to the corporate decisions to terminate the relationships, with the drug situation serving as a convenient excuse. She remained in the top ten, however, would have likely earned Hall of Fame induction, and could have maintained a significant Q Score post-retirement.
Did they make the right decision to discard the years of brand equity they’d had with the player? To make such a quick decision, it must have appeared to them a clear-cut situation. Perhaps their reasoning went “Sharapova is unequivocally a cheater. Our metrics indicate that being associated with cheaters damages our brand to a far greater degree than any of her other qualities augment it. Therefore, we must take the drastic step of ending or suspending the relationship with her.”
Did they do the right thing? Or did the situation have nuance they should have considered?
Sharapova announced the suspension in a press conference during which she accepted fault for failing to pay attention to an email detailing substances added to the banned list for 2016. She claims to have taken one of the newly naughty drugs for years on a doctor’s recommendation for legitimate medical purposes.
If she didn’t intentionally take the substance for performance enhancement, should her intent count for something? She may apply for a retroactive Therapeutic Use Exemption that could absolve her if granted. Should sponsors have waited to see what would happen with that situation? Could she be telling the truth? Honesty and humility can be positive qualities with which a company might want to be identified.
Should they have also looked at the bigger picture? The assumption seems to be that Sharapova was at fault, but what if other parties’ actions deserve scrutiny as well?
The Washington Times reported that Dick Pound, the former president of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), called her “stupid” for not noticing the new ban on the drug known as Mildronate. Some sources say she was notified five times. Sharapova says most of those notifications were buried among long lists of other information. The New York Times quoted WADA President Craig Reedie as saying, “We take great care to inform our stakeholders of any amendments to the prohibited list.”
Her native Russia’s anti-doping agency is in disarray right now after a 2015 scandal. While Meldonium is illegal in the U.S. and the European Union, the Latvian drug is in wider use in the east. Is it possible the WADA could have anticipated some difficulties with athletes taking a drug that is legal in their home countries and made a better effort to ensure they were notified? Do the anti-doping forces, in fact, have incentive to do so, or do they get more mileage out of high-profile athletes getting banned so they can point to a larger drug problem and request more resources for their efforts? They aren’t the ones who lose their livelihoods for four years for one positive test. Should they be evaluating their communication strategies, especially given how serious the penalties are?
One could also look at the drug itself. In the process of banning the substance, the anti-doping folks found that athletes were, in fact, using it for performance enhancement. The question is, should that be a good enough reason to ban it? I found at least two sources indicating that Meldonium has few side effects, and the rationale for banning performance-enhancing drugs has always been that the likes of anabolic steroids boost ability but at a horrible cost and we must keep the children from thinking it’s okay to make that choice about your body. Without side effects, however, might Meldonium belong more in the category of sports drinks? If it hasn’t been approved in certain areas of the world, is that due to a rash of accidents or due to excessive bureaucratic caution or labyrinthine approval processes? All those involved should satisfy themselves as regards the fundamental question of whether the substance deserved its ban in the first place.
The bottom line is that there is clearly nuance to the situation. Only individual sponsors can decide for themselves if there is enough to justify maintaining a relationship with their endorser. They have tough bigger picture decisions to face, too. If they decided much of the problem lay with the anti-doping establishment, they’d have to really muster some moxie and resources to raise that question with a powerful force in sport. Nike could do it, but one can certainly understand why they wouldn’t want to risk being branded as supporting doping in sport.
Is making different choices than Porsche, Tag Heuer, and the swoosh merchants a viable possibility? We’re going to find out, because at least one of her sponsors decided there were enough gray areas to the imbroglio to not only support Sharapova, but extend her contract.
Racquet manufacturer Head issued a statement in which its Chairman and CEO declared “this falls into the category of ‘honest’ mistakes.” They added, “Furthermore, we question WADA¹s decision to add Meldonium to its banned substances list in the manner it did; we believe the correct action by WADA would have been to impose a dosage limitation only. In the circumstances we would encourage WADA to release scientific studies which validates their claim that Meldonium should be a banned substance.”
Which sponsors made the right call? At this point, it’s a gray area.