Maria Sharapova’s costly mistake: the backers, the leavers, and the waiters
Nike and Tag Heuer have become the first major sponsors to cut ties with Maria Sharapova after her positive drugs test
When, like Maria Sharapova, you are world’s highest-paid female athlete—and have been for the last 11 years—as well as the most followed female athlete on social media, and come third on the tour only to Serena and Venus Williams in Grand Slam titles, image and reputation are vital commodities.
So when former world No1 and tennis superstar Sharapova made the shock announcement on Monday that she had failed a drug test at the Australian Open, it did not take long for some of the most lucrative sponsors in the world to reassess their partnerships with her.
For Sharapova may not be the biggest earner on a tennis court, but when it comes to endorsements, she outshines by a distance her biggest rival, Williams.
The last Forbes list, measured from June 2014 to June last year, assessed Williams’ estimated earnings from prize money at $11.6 million and from endorsements at a further $13 million. In comparison, Sharapova earned $6.7 million in prize money but $23 million in endorsements.
Her appeal has been sky-high since she took tennis by storm as a 17-year-old in 2004, beating two-time defending champion Williams for the Wimbledon title. Already she was dressed in Nike, as she was still when she lost to Williams for the 18th consecutive time in the quarters of the Australian Open six weeks ago.
Before long, Sharapova was earning more than any other sportswoman in the world despite battling assorted injuries, not least in coming back from outside the top 100 after shoulder surgery in 2008-9. Indeed only last year, she played just one match between Wimbledon and the WTA Finals as she nursed first a leg and then an arm injury. This season, she managed only that Australian quarter-final run, and it was there that she was tested, and subsequently failed, her drugs screening for meldonium.
Sharapova, in pre-emptively addressing the media, said she had been using the medication for 10 years for a variety of health problems. However the same substance that had been permitted since she began taking it in 2006 had been added to the WADA list of banned substances at the start of the year—and she did not check the updated information.
Now she awaits news of the consequences: a ban from competition for a yet-to-be-determined period. She is likely already to have to forfeit her Australian Open prize money—though in the scale of things, $281,000 will not make a huge dent.
More significant will the loss of ranking points as she sits out months, perhaps the entire season that includes what may be her last opportunity to compete at the Olympics: She will be 29 in April.
At least as significant, of course, are her reputation and image, for the financial consequences of lost endorsements are potentially huge. And the most lucrative of them, that long-standing partnership with Nike, was the first to be suspended.
Business Insider quoted this week that her sportswear deal is estimated at $100 million over eight years, Nike’s largest with a female athlete. But a spokesman for the company announced: “We are saddened and surprised by the news about Maria Sharapova. We have decided to suspend our relationship with Maria while the investigation continues. We will continue to monitor the situation.”
A day later Porsche, for whom Sharapova became a brand ambassador on her birthday in 2013, initially for three years, followed suit:
“We are saddened by the recent news announced by Maria Sharapova. Until further details are released and we can analyse the situation, we have chosen to postpone planned activities.”
The luxury watchmaker TAG Heuer has worked with Sharapova since her Wimbledon victory, but it so happened that their current contract ended in December. The company promptly decided to halt current negotiations: “Maria Sharapova was under contract with TAG Heuer until December 31, 2015. We had been in talks to extend our collaboration. In view of the current situation, the Swiss watch brand has suspended negotiations, and has decided not to renew the contract with Ms Sharapova.”
However other partners have chosen to bide their time and give Sharapova a chance, at least in part, to exonerate herself during the investigations ahead. Evian’s formal statement said: “Evian has been a partner of Maria Sharapova for many years, and until now, we have maintained a trustworthy professional relationship… Evian attaches great importance to health, to integrity, and transparency, and we will follow closely the development of the investigation.”
Cosmetics company Avon, with whom Sharapova filmed a perfume shoot that she published to Facebook on National Tennis Day late a fortnight ago, has also stood its ground: “We are not going to comment at this time.”
Now today, Sharapova will surely be grateful for the support of one of her key sponsors and racket-provider, Head.
The statement delivered by Head’s chairman was a lengthy one, and clearly the result of careful consideration. And make no mistake: This is a company with many other high-profile partners in the tennis community, such as Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Tomas Berdych, as well as future headliners, Taylor Fritz and Sascha Zverev. Head, then, also has a reputation to consider, which must make the supportive statement all the more welcome for Sharapova.
“As a company, Head has a strict anti-doping policy. We believe the use of WADA banned substances with the intent to enhance performance or gain unfair advantages must be sanctioned. We have a clause in all our endorsement agreements entitling us to terminate endorsements of athletes found guilty of doping.
“In Maria Sharapova’s case, we have analysed the facts and circumstances in great detail in order to reach a firm conclusion about our association with her…”
It goes on to detail the areas it has taken into consideration: “Maria has taken mildronat and other medications since 2006 as a result of the frequency by which she had the flu, abnormal EKG results and indicators of diabetes. It is common ground within the scientific community that in order for meldonium to have any relevant performance enhancing effect, it has to be taken in daily dosages in excess of 1,000 to 2,000mg. According to her attorney, her dosage was significantly less than that. We further believe she is still dealing with the medical conditions she described.
“We conclude that, although it is beyond doubt that she tested positive for the use of a WADA-banned substance, the circumstantial evidence is equally beyond doubt that the continued use of meldonium after 1 January 2016 in the dosages she had been recommended, which were significantly short of performance-enhancing levels, was a manifest error by Maria.
“In the absence of any evidence of any intent by Maria of enhancing her performance or trying to gain an unfair advantage, we further conclude this falls into the category of ‘honest’ mistakes.
“We also know that for more than a decade, Maria Sharapova has been a role model and woman of integrity who has inspired millions of fans around the world to play and watch tennis. The honesty and courage she displayed in announcing and acknowledging her mistake was admirable. Head is proud to stand behind Maria, now and into the future, and we intend to extend her contract.”
Should Sharapova eventually be absolved of any deliberate attempt to enhance her performance, should she be found guilty only of ignorance compounded by a genuine mistake, Head will no doubt be top of her list of endorsers.
Where Nike fits into future plans, however, only time will tell.