When Sports Sponsors Drop Their Clients

Disgraced stars can see their incomes slashed following high-profile blunders


When the matter of professional athletes’ pay is brought up in conversation, it is generally met with bewildered disdain. The money flying around in soccer, boxing, golf and tennis makes for some incredibly deep pockets, and the perceived ‘easy’ lifestyle of the beneficiaries does little to assuage public opinion. And there is a morbid fascination with the riches paid to sportspeople; a ticker created by the Mirror displays Wayne Rooney’s earnings in real-time and prompts the visitor to offer their own wages for comparison.

Tiger Woods - sensationally dropped from many of his endorsement deals in 2010 following the public admittance and apology regarding his prolific infidelity - is once again incredibly well-endorsed. In the year from June 2014 to June 2015, Woods earned $600,000 from sporting competition but, according to Forbes, raked in $50 million in sponsorship deals. Usain Bolt, similarly, earned $15,000 in the same period from winning races, but brought in a mammoth $21 million from sponsorships. These are special cases of course, but even the highest paid sportsmen on earth will see sponsorship contribute significantly to their incomes. Cristiano Ronaldo, for example, supplements his $52 million salary with a cool $27 million from sponsors.

These incredibly profitable partnerships are occasionally dropped, and not thanks to underperformance on the field, in the ring, at the track, on the court and so on; they are more regularly abandoned following an ignominy in the athlete’s private lives. And these damaging revelations tend to follow the same pattern; exposure is met with disgust and that disgust is sidestepped by companies who immediately look to distance themselves from the activity in question by withdrawing their sponsorship.

There are plenty of high-profile examples of companies condemning the activity of their clients. Going back to Wayne Rooney, one of English football’s most marketable players, was alleged to have been cheating on his wife Coleen in 2009/10, with prostitutes. The saga was lengthy, but Coca-Cola wasted no time, claiming they were ‘disgusted’ by the alleged infidelity and immediately dropped the goalscorer from their advertising campaigns. Interestingly, it seems disgust is subjective, as the likes of Nike and EA Sports declared it a ‘private’ matter, and their stance on Rooney as an ambassador for their brand was unchanged.

Alleged infidelity is, of course, not a brilliant imagine for a brand to be aligned with. But, worse still, are overtly uncomfortable political views. Tyson Fury is wonderful in the ring. His triumph over Wladimir Klitschko in 2015 captured the imagination thanks to the chalk and cheese nature of the competitors, but his expression outside of the ring has been problematic to say the least. Fury made frankly abhorrent comments regarding homosexuality and abortion, comparing them to paedophilia and denouncing their legalization. Perhaps dispiritingly, his comments received little in the way of official condemnation. A petition to have him removed from the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award nominee list was ultimately unsuccessful and he lost no sponsors.

And in the world of sports scandal, very few things unite the world in condemnation like doping. It is ingrained in supporters that cheating is wrong, particularly when it is not immediately evident, and sport’s uncomfortable relationship with fixing and corruption makes the rallying against dopers understandable. Doping also invariably results in the loss of sponsorship. Maria Sharapova is the most recent to be publicly shamed, following a doping scandal made only slightly more palatable thanks to her apparent lack of responsibility in the decision to cheat. Lance Armstrong is probably the most well-known example, though; the once-legendary cyclist was left by eight sponsors within 12 hours of the story breaking in 2012, with Nike - a supported of Armstrong since 1996 - the first to break away. The financial impact of this was not lost on him ‘I've certainly lost all future income…You could look at the day and a half where people left. I don't like thinking about it. But that was a…I don't know. That was a $75 million day.’

Generally, though, there is a lack of consistency among brands regarding what they deem as indefensible. The effect of scandals on sponsorship effectiveness is as difficult to quantify as the effect of sponsorship itself, and scandals by no means see sports stars struggling to pay the bills. The pedestal that sports stars are placed on makes for the ferocious reaction to scandal; sports sponsorship will continue to put millions into the pockets of individuals, providing they watch what they tweet in future. 

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