Maria Sharapova's Sponsors Pull: Too Soon?

By Beth Miller @BethTalksSports

Account Director, PRO Sports Communications

Were Maria Sharapova’s sponsors right to pull her deals so quickly?

This was the question posed in our weekly Twitter poll with 69 percent of responses voting “No, too knee-jerk” and 31 percent voting “Yes, necessary.” To expand on Twitter’s character limitation a bit, this is an opinion of: do sponsors need to move quickly when faced with an alleged athlete scandal to separate their brand from a tarnished image, or should sponsors do their due diligence and gather all of the facts before saying goodbye?

Despite Sharapova’s press conference mea culpa for taking a banned substance, Nike and Porsche almost immediately cut ties with the world’s highest paid female athlete, and TAG Heuer was quick to follow suit. This is after Sharapova chose to publicly make a statement admitting to taking meldonium for ten years, which was put on list of banned substances on January 1, 2016.

Our “Yes, necessary” voters are likely thinking it’s on the athlete to stay on top of what’s on the banned list, which the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) regularly sends when updates are made. You could make the case Sharapova was “playing dumb” about meldonium and thought a public apology could help escape backlash knowing sports fans are apt to forgive. She is certainly not the first athlete to be caught taking illegal substances and there are numerous examples of athletes who tested positive, served their suspensions, and went on to be hailed as some of the best in their respective sports. (Winning tends to help this cause)

A timely example, one athlete held his own press conference just hours before Sharapova’s in an event many would characterize as a perfect closing to a perfect career. We’re talking about Peyton Manning, of course; except, instead of a stellar 18 years only blemished by a neck injury, Peyton was accused of taking HGH in an Al Jazeera report late last year. While his sponsors faced pressure, all chose to support Manning, a possible Super Bowl winner and one of the best comeback stories in the NFL.

Is the reaction to Sharapova’s situation then fair? One could argue Sharapova admitted to using a banned substance while Peyton denied the accusations, but both are still being investigated. One is left to wonder why sponsors reacted so differently.

For the “No, too knee-jerk” voters, Sharapova’s intentions matter more than what she admitted to. While it may be difficult to prove Sharapova was truly in the dark about meldonium being added to the banned substance list, it does seem possible that she didn’t read the updated list in January, particularly if she was willing to hold a press conference and fess up. And who’s to say another substance she’s been taking for years won’t pop up on the 2017 banned list? It’s a grey area for athletes to be sure.

Taking the fan forgiveness factor into consideration, if fans – the consumers – can continue supporting an athlete, why are sponsors scared to keep endorsements intact without having all the facts? Right or wrong, sponsors cutting ties almost immediately in the face of a scandal is becoming the trend.  In a recent Sports Business Daily article, it’s clear Nike is becoming less and less tolerant of athlete scandals and the era of hanging on for 575 days (Oscar Pistorius) may be over…depending on who you are.