LONDON – So far, Maria Sharapova's attempts to limit the damage from her doping revelation have been well-judged, branding and crisis managers say. But whether she can hold onto her financial and sporting clout will ultimately depend on the length of any ban she is handed.
The five-time Grand Slam champion has apparently been upfront and contrite in the scandal that erupted Monday, when she revealed she had failed a drug test for meldonium, which had just been banned by authorities. She admitted taking the drug for ten years for medical reasons. No dishonesty was involved, Sharapova says, she had merely neglected to click on an updated list of banned drugs.
The scandal threatens to undo years of meticulous brand building that have seen Sharapova become one of the most commercially successful female athletes ever. Major sponsors Nike, Tag Heuer and Porsche have suspended their deals with the 28-year-old Russian. One, though, hasn't: racket manufacturer Head, which publicly backed her and even extended her contract.
"Head clearly buys her claim that this was just an honest mistake," said Michael Gordon, CEO of corporate and crisis communications firm Group Gordon. "Are they trying to read the tea leaves in terms of how severe her punishment will be? Sure. But as long as no shocking revelations emerge that challenge the truth of her statements thus far, all signs point to a lenient punishment."
Sharapova is already provisionally banned from tennis and numerous tennis players, including two-time Grand Slam champion and fellow Head racket-user Andy Murray, say she has to accept her punishment. Murray also queried Head's response.
She could potentially face a four-year ban, according to former World Anti-Doping Agency president Dick Pound, which would to all intents and purposes spell the end of her career at the top of the women's game — and seriously damage the worth of her hard-won brand. Pound has said Sharapova was guilty of "willful negligence" for using meldonium. Other questions have been raised to, including why Sharapova was taking meldonium in the first place, which was banned by WADA because it aids oxygen uptake and endurance.
A lenient punishment from the International Tennis Federation, say a year or less, would give some validation to Sharapova's claim that her mistake, though big, was honest. It would last as long as some injuries, which is something Sharapova has struggled with through her career. A short ban would potentially allow brands to ride out the storm and forgive her. And if it's a short ban, then Sharapova, who has won all four Grand Slam titles, won't need to do much to rebuild her brand.
"Sharapova's commercial worth would hinge significantly on the length of a ban should there be one," said Jon Stainer, managing director of sports marketing firm Repucom's UK and Ireland operations.
"At 28, she still has many years of playing at the top of the game — Serena Williams for example is six years Sharapova's senior — but the longer it would take to return to the game, the less time she would have to rebuild that image she's done so well to build," he added.
Sharapova, according to Repucom research, is the most marketable female athlete in the world, ranking above the likes of her tennis peer Serena Williams and skier Lindsey Vonn. Of the 76 percent of people that know of her globally, 74 percent say they like the tennis ace and 75 percent say they find her aspirational, Repucom's Stainer said.
Those positive numbers tell the story of Sharapova's value to sponsors and why no sponsor has yet ditched her for good. Sharapova is one of the top female players of her generation, with 35 career singles titles and over $36 million in career earnings. Those earnings, however, are thought to be dwarfed by what she gets from her endorsements and business ventures, like her candy brand Sugarpova.
Sportswear giant Nike, Swiss watch brand Tag Heuer and German luxury car company Porsche have distanced themselves from Sharapova. But, crucially, they all left the door ajar for a return. Nike, for one, said, it had "decided to suspend our relationship with Maria while the investigation continues" but that it "will continue to monitor the situation."
Austria-based Head has taken a different approach and has backed Sharapova in light of her pro-active response. The stakes for Head, though, are different to those of Nike, which has many more brand ambassadors and across a wider array of sports
"Head is proud to stand behind Maria, now and into the future and we intend to extend her contract," the company said in a statement Thursday. "We look forward to working with her and to announcing new sponsorships in the weeks and months ahead."
Though acknowledging that Head has much more at stake given its business model is so focused on tennis, crisis manager Gordon said the company is betting that fans will forgive Sharapova.
"Everyone loves a comeback story," Gordon said.
How this all pans out will depend on what happens next and what, if anything else, emerges.
Nigel Currie, a British-based sponsorship and PR consultant, said her return to the high financial grounds she's occupied since she won Wimbledon as a 17-year-old in 2004 will "depend on the length of the ban" and that anything in excess of a couple of years will be "very hard" as the game would have moved.
"But if it's a slap on the wrist, say a six-month bank, it's game-on again," she said.