There’s no doubt, Maria Sharapova’s golden child image has taken a blow in recent weeks. When the story of doping allegations hit the news, the tennis star, most well-known for her poise in endorsements rather than her poise on the court, had a serious PR crisis on her hands.
When your brand is your image, any whiff of a cheating or doping scandal becomes headline news. The five-time Grand Slam champion did herself plenty of favors in the early going, though, coming right out and admitting her faults and asking for forgiveness. In a second solid PR move, Sharapova gave herself a solid and reasonable alibi for her indiscretions. The drug found in her system, meldonium, was allegedly prescribed for legitimate medical reasons. Sharapova admitted taking the drug for the better part of a decade, but she coupled that admission with a reasonable excuse.
Sharapova then completed a trifecta of solid PR responses by claiming the issue was an honest mistake. She never lied about the substance, she simply didn’t realize it was banned. The list of banned substances was updated, she said, but she didn’t read it. People who want to believe her did so. Easy mistake, right? But the people who WANTED to believe did not necessarily include Sharapova’s sponsors. So far, the fallout on that score has been substantial. Nike, Porsche, and Tag Heuer have all stopped Sharapova’s endorsement deals. And they did so almost immediately, a move that is certain to sting.
Now, it’s worth noting that these deals have been suspended, not rescinded. That’s fairly common for a brand to overreact to avoid getting caught up in any nefarious scenarios surrounding their “faces”. Any or all of these brands could update their agreements with Sharapova once all the smoke blows over.
The next factor is how long the punishment may last. World Tennis could impose a four-year ban on the player, essentially ending her competitive career. If that happens, expect the endorsement deals to dry up permanently. So, Sharapova’s next PR focus must be on convincing tennis’ governing body she’s worth more to them on the court than off it.
Win that battle and the endorsements will take care of themselves.