Tuesday, 19 April 2016

The Sharapova Drug Head Ache

Maria Sharapova is part of an immense financial and marketing juggernaut that is now struggling to deal with the news that the Russian tennis player failed a recent drug test. Indeed, some may say, just for using a drug that was only recently banned in January 2016. Albeit the former Wimbledon champion has been using it for ten years without hindrance. An administrative oversight the partial explanation for failure of the test. Only adding to the global incredulity with key sponsors reacting in mixed fashion since the news was broken in Los Angeles by Sharapova herself.

With an estimated career earnings of $285 Maria has been a money making machine since winning the singles women title in 2004 at the age of 17 in SW19. Providing her sponsors with a dream opportunity ever since and all benefiting from an association with an athlete associated with “trust” and “aspiration” according to sponsorship consultants Repucom. In fact, last year alone Sharapova earned just under 30 million dollars of which two thirds came from Nike, Tag Heuer, Head, Porsche, Tiffany, Avon and Evian. The Russian a key asset in a sponsorship industry valued at $50Bn and one where she still remains the highest paid female athlete – surprisingly ahead of Serena Williams and Lyndsey Vonn. 

Hence the reluctance on the part of the sponsors to part company, with only Porsche and Tag Heuer doing brave enough to do so. Along with UNICEF, who also suspended her ambassadorial role.

The ambivalence offered by the current suspension suits top sponsor Nike, who have yet to take action and will be unlikely to do so until relevant sanction is finally confirmed. With much guessing as to where Meldonium fits in the banned substance list and difficult to gage in the scale of drug offences. Some estimates suggesting the maximum four-year ban - which seems harsh given the precedents – or as little as six months. For Nike such high profile storms are not uncommon given the breadth of their portfolio and also having lived the Lance Armstrong doping scandal for a number of years. Added to Justin Gatlin’s drug ban, Tiger Woods domestic upheaval and then Kobe Bryant’s sexual assault allegations. Leaving the US sportswear company now more adept at crisis management with reliable techniques to minimises any blemish to their instantly recognisable swoosh. 

But the added news this week that four Russian track-and-field athletes have also tested positive for Meldonium will further undermine any efforts to overturn a global doping ban of their athletes in time for the Olympics later this year. Thus far 16 Russian sportsmen and women have been caught using Meldonium since it was banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency on January 1st. Dmitry Shlyakhtin, head of the Russian Athletics Federation (ARAF), said on Monday four athletes had now tested positive, although he did not name the athletes and so it was unclear whether Russian sprinter Nadezhda Kotlyarova, who revealed on Sunday she had taken Meldonium, was included as one of the four. So unless the ban is lifted Russian athletes will miss the 2016 Rio Olympics in August. Indeed, since Sharapova admitted using Meldonium, at least 100 athletes from multiple countries have tested positive for the drug, which is used to treat diabetes and low magnesium and has been linked to increased sporting performance. 

Meldonium is particularly popular in Russia and the former Soviet Union, having been invented in Latvia it was used to help Soviet soldiers fight at high altitude in the 1980’s. 

Last week Russian swimmer Yuliya Efimova faced a life ban from the sport after she also tested positive for it. The 23-year-old four-times breaststroke world champion, who has been based in the United States since 2011, tested positive for the drug during an out-of-competition test. Efimova, bronze medallist at the 2012 London Olympics in the 200m, could be handed a lifetime ban from competitive swimming as she has previously failed a drugs test. In May 2014, she was disqualified for 16 months by the International Swimming Federation (Fina) after traces of the anabolic steroid DHEA, which speeds up metabolism and helps with weight loss, were found in her system at an out-of-competition test in Los Angeles in 2013.

In the case of Maria Sharapova though the news has created a division in the game as some believe it was an honest and genuine mistake. Others have not been so understanding with French tennis player Kristina Mladenovic saying the Russian was a “cheater”. A sentiment also has been heard from Jennifer Capriati in the wake of Sharapova string of victories - which include a total of five grand slams.

Capriati’s career was cut short by injury after winning two Australian Open titles and the 2001 French Open, and she was furious because she felt her career ended prematurely in part because she refused to cheat.

"I had to throw in the towel and suffer," Capriati posted on Twitter "I didn't have the high priced team of [doctors] that found a way for me to cheat and get around the system and wait for science to catch up.

"What's the point of someone taking a heart medicine that helps your heart recover faster unless you have a heart condition? Is that accurate?

"It's always about one thing that benefits everyone. #money. "Maybe I should start taking it? Lol I might feel better."

Capriati believes the Russian should be stripped of her 35 professional titles, which includes two French Opens (2012, 2014), the 2004 Wimbledon championship, 2006 US Open crown, and the 2008 Australian title.

"How much did it take away from the other person’s food plate," Capriati asked.

Despite being dogged by injury Sharapova is still only 28 and even if it were to be a four year ban she could still remain a winning force at the age of 32. But in admitting culpability and facing the media Sharapova has attempted to address the matter in the hope that – any ban permitting – the reaction will soon blow over. This positive action learned from the experience from other athletes caught in the past. Some of whom tried to hide in the wake of allegations. 

But with launch of Sugarpova, the savvy Sharapova will want to control the news cycle as much as possible as any prolonged bad news is unhelpful for all parties in her marketing juggernaut. As the Sugarpova brand heads into the world of gummy candies and chocolates, as well as other home goods, operating in a very attractive demographic for tennis sponsors. Consequently, Sharapova’s management will be watching events very closely and awaiting the confirmation of the possible ban to minimise the damage. As will the sponsors with Head tennis racquets, who only secured Sharapova’s services in 2013 after the Russian ended a long association with Prince. 

Head could face costly damage to their brand if the ban proves very lengthy. Not unlike Nike, the racquet maker has a lot invested in the Russian and so even the suspension could be costly to them. Hence their silence on the matter.

For most of us though taking performance enhancing drugs is an offence and merits the appropriate punishment. But then again most of us are not part of the marketing and financial juggernaut that is Sharapova and so remaining objective is perhaps easier. But if Sharapova makes $12m a year from Nike sponsorship the sportswear company must make a lot more from the association? 

But breaking that relationship would surely turn things on their Head.

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