Heart Over Head: Spotlight turns on sponsors after Sharapova ban

In the 48 hours following the news that Maria Sharapova has been banned for two years for taking banned substance Meldonium, the spotlight has invariably shifted to her sponsors to see their reaction.

Many would have expected Nike, Head and Evian to pull the plug on their sponsorship deals with the former world No.1, but all three have done quite the opposite. Nike announced it will be continuing to partner with Sharapova, citing that she did not dope intentionally and is appealing the ban. Originally Nike had suspended its relationship with the Russian pending the investigation.

Evian, likewise, had first said it would follow the investigation closely before making a decision, but has now come out in full support of Sharapova and will continue to work with her despite the ban.

Head, though, took things a step further – a big and controversial step further – by challenging the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and the International Tennis Federation (ITF). Head has claimed that the ban was based on WADA’s flawed process and was therefore a flawed decision, and so the brand will be sticking by Sharapova and continuing its sponsorship.

Quite why a tennis racket manufacturer is challenging WADA’s global drugs policy is baffling. What expertise does Head have to make such a criticism of WADA and doping in sport? A well-advised sponsor would steer clear of such a move and comment only on its relationship with the athlete, certainly not taking on a governing body that is trying to keep the sport clean and fair.

This follows the original statement Head released back in March when the failed drugs test first arose in which the company nailed its colours to the mast and came out in support of Sharapova without knowing all the facts or what the final outcome of the independent investigation would be. This did not sit well with one of its biggest athletes, Andy Murray, who openly criticised Head’s position in supporting Sharapova.

Sharapova is a Head ambassador

At the same time, another Sharapova’s sponsors, Tag Heuer, took the non-emotional route and put loyalty to one side by announcing it was suspending renewal talks and cutting its ties with the tainted tennis star. Tag has reaffirmed this stance and said it is not in a hurry to discuss any new contract, signalling the partnership will wind down

Porsche took a similar approach to Nike in suspending all planned activity with the former Wimbledon champion and has now said it will hold back final judgement until the outcome of the appeal is known.

Avon sensibly chose to remain silent back in March, but has now confirmed the sponsorship will expire at the end of the current contract without renewal, pointing at a limited engagement window for activity being the reason as opposed to the doping situation.

The Nike positioning is interesting when you look at the business value and the brand’s reputation. Supporting an athlete banned for doping damages the reputation of the brand, although a precedent was set by Nike’s renewed support of two-time drugs cheat Justin Gatlin. If there is a huge business value attached to the athlete that outweighs the reputational risk in the long-term then you could understand Nike supporting Sharapova. However, she is approaching the end of her career, especially by the time she can return to the court, and when put alongside the other stars on Nike’s books she no longer has the revenue pulling power.

We now await the verdict of Sharapova’s appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport and to see what the sponsors do next. Will Murray and other top stars with Head or Nike partnerships speak out publicly against Head challenging WADA or Nike sticking by Sharapova?