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Why Nike refuses to ditch Maria Sharapova

What’s behind Nike's sudden U-turn decision to stand by Maria Sharapova? Over the years Nike has severed ties with a number of high-prof...

What’s behind Nike's sudden U-turn decision to stand by Maria Sharapova? Over the years Nike has severed ties with a number of high-profile international athletes for a multitude of reasons.

There was former US track runner Marion Jones, whose endorsement contract it declined to renew after news of the sprinter’s steroid scandal broke, and NFL running back Ray Rice with whom it cut ties with after he was captured on tape abusing his fiancée.

Then of course there’s our very own paralympian Oscar Pistorius whom Nike dropped like a hot potato soon after he was arrested for the murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp in 2013.

However, the company has also stood by athletes through embarrassing scandals and cringeworthy incidents – think Kobe Bryant when he was accused of sexually assaulting a woman and serial womaniser Tiger Woods with the series of affairs he had while still married.

But if there’s one thing that Nike has always been clear on, it’s the fact that it won’t support athletes who cheat to get ahead in the game.
Why Nike refuses to ditch Maria Sharapova
That’s why disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong and his Livestrong Foundation finally got the boot in 2012 after he admitted to taking performance-enhancing drugs for the better part of his cycling career.

So it comes as an eyebrow-raising surprise that the multinational has made a 180-degree turn on its initial decision to ditch Sharapova after she tested positive for meldonium – heart medication that can enhance an athlete’s performance and received a two-year ban from the game – to suddenly standing firmly by her side.

It could be because its relationship with Sharapova dates back almost two decades to when she was just an 11-year-old up-and-coming tennis star in the making with a truckload of potential.

I’ll give it to Nike that breaking such a longstanding relationship can’t be an easy decision to make, but at the same time I can’t help but think that there has to be a greater reason driving their choice that goes well beyond a long-term partnership.

The answer likely lies in the fact that Sharapova – a blond haired, green eyed Russian stunner – has massive market appeal and selling power and Nike is probably not ready to give up on its cash cow just yet.

At one point, Sharapova’s line of ballet flat shoes was the biggest selling female shoe for Nike’s former subsidiary Cole Haan and in 2010 Nike renewed its contract with Sharapova for eight years – a deal that is reportedly worth $70 million including royalties.

In explaining why Sharapova – who until recently held the spot of the highest-paid female athlete for the past 11 years before being toppled by arch rival Serena Williams – Dr Patrick Rishe, Sports Business Programme Director at the Olin Business School at Washington University put it aptly in an article he wrote for Forbessaying: “In sport success, likeability of personality, an athlete’s desire to pursue endorsement deals, and market or geographical factors are but some of these factors (that determine an athlete’s endorsement value). An athlete’s perceived attractiveness can also impact their endorsement value, as can demographic factors such as what audience does the athlete cater to and does that audience have preferences to see spokespeople who they better connect with…For better or worse, looks and personality can impact an athlete’s marketability.”

Perhaps this is why the sportswear giant refuses to let Sharapova go.

At the end of the day, no matter what the company’s reasons are, Nike really ought to be cognisant of the contradictory message that its ongoing endorsement of Sharapova sends to the public at large.

It’s time for Nike to be more consistent in its hardline, zero-tolerance approach to cheating, whether intentional or not. The bottom line is that Sharapova consumed a banned substance even though she had been made aware that it had been added to a list of substances tennis athletes aren’t allowed to take.

If Sharapova succeeds in her appeal to overturn her ban then maybe Nike can consider reinstating her endorsement contract, but until that happens, if it happens at all, Nike should just do it already!

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