Major sponsors cut ties with Maria Sharapova, but for what reason?

Maria Sharapova

Sponsors using Sharapova’s news to kill two birds with one stone.
Choosing not to stand by Sharapova because of recent events? Or was it just the perfect excuse to move on without facing public backlash? Nike, the same company that stood by Tiger Woods and Kobe Bryant, were seemingly unwilling to stand by Maria Sharapova as an official investigation is conducted.

The tennis world was rocked when Maria Sharapova announced she had tested positive for meldonium at the Australian Open, a substance that was declared a prohibited substance on January 1, 2016, which then resulted in her provisional suspension pending further action. Sharapova then saw her marketing empire come crashing down as major sponsors Nike and Porsche announced they had suspended their relationship as the investigation continued and Tag Heuer ending their partnership all together.

Sharapova is the world’s highest-paid female athlete, and in 2015 obtained the title for the 11th consecutive year earning an impressive $29.7 million. She has been a marketing powerhouse obtaining sponsorships and ambassador roles since early on in her career, with a large proportion of her net worth being attributed to off-court commitments. Nike has been one of Sharapova’s biggest supporters collaborating together since she was 11 years old, and signing an 8-year deal in 2010, which was reportedly worth as much as $70 million.

Sharapova Playing Tennis

Shara3

Sharapova dealt with the issue efficiently and owned up to her mistake. Based on the nature and circumstances of the situation, it can be mused whether the strategic decisions to distance themselves were made in light of recent events, or because of the current state of her tennis career. Was the uncoupling seen by her sponsors as a quick fix for a fading star?

Sharapova has dropped to number 7 in the Women’s Tennis Association rankings, and due to persistent injuries has only played three tournaments and the Fed Cup final within the last eight months. If Sharapova’s career was still in its prime, would major sponsors have moved so quickly?

Sharapova’s marketability and brand has started to diminish over time, and the omnipresence of rumours regarding retirement will have sponsors looking into and planning for the future. Up and coming tennis stars in the likes of Garbine Muguruza, Milos Raonic and Angelique Kerber are becoming increasingly attractive prospective brand ambassadors, and possess greater market appeal.

The current revelations from Sharapova could have provided her sponsors with an escape route that was too good to be true, allowing them to cut ties with the tennis star without facing any public backlash. Under different circumstances, the cessation of Sharapova’s Nike or Porsche sponsorship deals could be labelled as ageist or sexist, but has the current situation that Sharapova has found herself in, provided an opportunity for major brands to bypass any scrutiny and move forward with their brands?

Simon Wang
Strategy Intern 

Image Credits: Zimbio, Coolspotters, Telegraph UK
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