After the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, Oscar Pistorius appeared to be on the brink of burning up the world of sports and sponsorships. Companies like Nike and Oakley paid for sponsorships that when combined, gave the former track and field mega-star an annual income well over two million dollars. An attractive and charismatic standout athlete, Pistorius was one of a number excellent targets for companies looking to market via sponsorships. Yet, his was also another highly profitable sponsorship that came to a screeching halt when the Paralympian shot and killed his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp. His sponsors cancelled their contracts almost immediately. Just as fellow athletes O.J. Simpson, Tiger Woods, and Lance Armstrong lost their lucrative sponsor contracts, so Pistorius has lost his own. It must be noted that the athletes are not the only financial losers here; the sponsors have seen their money flushed down the public relations drain as well. Moreover, it does not take a murder charge to cause major embarrassment for the sponsor. Two of the other aforementioned disgraced athletes lost their sponsorships via far less drama. Seven time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong was blacklisted for a doping scandal. Golf prodigy Tiger Woods’ marital infidelity cost him significantly regarding contracts.
While Pistorius, Woods, Simpson, and Armstrong are definitely among the greatest of sports brands, athlete marketability is less resilient than other forms of branding. Tylenol escaped its tampering debacle in the 1980s without any real lasting damage. Coca-Cola was able to survive the 2013 Dasani Water scandal with no lasting loss of reputation as well. A debacle related to a sponsored sports celebrity does not heal itself so well. A major reason for this is that an athlete’s value as a brand is as short as his or her athletic career; such careers which rarely last very long. A quality product such as Tylenol by contrast, lasts well beyond the inventor’s life. In fact by the time a major debacle such as the tampering scandal of the 1980s happened, the over-the-counter drug had become a staple to the American consumer. The brand was so strong that even in the face of severe public relations disasters, it would rebound within a relatively short period of time.
A fallen icon like Pistorius on the other hand, will forever be remembered as a man who killed his girlfriend. Whether it was by willful malice or grotesque irresponsibility, neither image is one to which a consumer goods company can connect its brand. A brand is the company’s reputation; A strong brand is a highly valuable asset, responsible for huge amounts of revenue. Subsequently, it should come as no surprise when a sponsor takes the next step beyond canceling an athlete’s contract, and actually sues its former beneficiary. This is exactly what happened to Lance Armstrong in 2013. The government sued Armstrong for sponsorship money earned while he was riding for Team United States Postal Service (USPS). The government claimed that the disgrace cost it over 10 million dollars when Armstrong and other members of his team were disqualified for doping.
When accepting highly lucrative sponsorships, athletes like Pistorius commit to a higher level of conduct representative of companies like Nike or Wilson. When a sponsored athlete cheats at sports, cheats on a spouse, or worst of all cheats another person out of their very life, he or she should expect a cost for their disgrace.
By Ian Erickson
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