PR fault: Sharapova's failure to come clean puts ball in sponsors' court

Maria Sharapova's drugs ban and her public reaction to the suspension do serious damage to her image and long-term prospects, PR professionals told PRWeek UK today - but another sponsorships expert still argues that the Russian's partner brands should not be too hasty to end their relationship with her.

Sharapova: On court at Wimbledon in 2014 (Credit: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire)
Sharapova: On court at Wimbledon in 2014 (Credit: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire)

Sharapova had announced in March that she had tested positive for a banned substance, meldonium, which she had been taking on advice from a doctor for several years, but which had since been put on the banned list. She was praised for the way she proactively controlled the message in her initial announcement – and her racquet supplier Head said she had been "courageous" when it announced its decision to continue working with her.

Yesterday, her two-year ban was announced by the International Tennis Federation (ITF) following a hearing last month. Sharapova shared her reaction on her Facebook page.

David Alexander, MD of Calacus PR and a former sports writer for various UK papers, points out that this statement does not mention her legal argument – revealed in the ITF judgement – that a ban would cause the former world number one "a very substantial loss of earnings and sponsorships, exclusion from the 2016 Olympics, and irreparable damage to her reputation".

"To think that loss of income would in any way be a mitigating factor for one of the most endorsed sportswomen in the world is beyond laughable and erodes much of the positive PR the March press conference provoked," he says.

He adds: "Given the polished nature of her initial press conference, the fact that Sharapova fails to address the fact that she concealed her use of the drug from most of her support team does not reflect well on her at all. Where in March she took full responsibility for her actions, the reality of another 18 months out of the game seems to have resulted in a defensive rather than acceptant response."

Two of Sharapova's highest profile sponsors – Head and Nike – have reaffirmed their intention to keep working with the Russian, while beauty brand Avon has decided to cut ties, although it said yesterday this was unrelated to her positive test.

Gavin Peters, head of partnerships at the sports PR and marketing agency Pitch, says brands might be wise to adopt a "wait and see" approach.

"If the ruling gets overturned, or the ban is cut by a significant amount of time, then she could be back on court soon. In which case you can see why brands would feel that the long-term benefits of sticking with her might outweigh the negative impact of this episode, which could ultimately be interpreted as a human mistake rather than a deliberate attempt to cheat," he says.

Fellow Head racquet user, the British tennis player Andy Murray, had criticised his sponsor in March over its decision to keep working with Sharapova.

Adam Raincock, director of PR and comms at Synergy Sponsorship, says he believes there is more than just sport on the mind of Sharapova and her team.

"What Sharapova cares about more than tennis or money is her reputation and image," he says, suggesting that with her career reaching its twilight phase, she sees herself "following the path of David Beckham when he retired – an entrepreneur, UN ambassador and a brand in her own right".

"A triumphant end to her career could see her take the step from tennis player into a bankable mainstream star. This incident adds a damaging twist to the story and following this she will find it very hard to rehabilitate her image inside and outside of tennis."

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