Earlier today sports marketer Gary McCall argued that Lance Armstrong's brand is 'finished' after the cyclist decided to stop challenging the doping allegations against him. But colleague Patrick Kavanagh believes there's life in Lance's brand yet...
There we have it. Lance Armstrong has decided to end his career-long fight to prove that he is the greatest cyclist of all time whilst never using performance-enhancing drugs. Therefore he’s guilty, correct? That’s the assertion that Matt Seaton of the Guardian has made in his August 24th article “Lance Armstrong, the man who strong armed cycling, gives up fight”. This article, that is pure conjecture in its entirety, suggests that by no longer fighting against the cycling gods to prove his innocence, Lance Armstrong is admitting guilt. In this article he asserts, “We may never finally know what deals were done to hush up the alleged positive tests Armstrong gave, though we have our suspicions.” That’s right, he has “suspicions” and not facts. In other words, he’s guessing. People have been ‘guessing’ for a long time that Lance is guilty of doping, but no proof has surfaced.
Can all these suspicions and currently unfounded accusations affect the exceptionally lucrative endorsements that Mr. Armstrong holds? This, we could suppose, is the marketing follow up question. As Brand Lance has chugged along 3,200 km at a time since his first Tour de France win in 1999, he has amassed an impressive sponsorship portfolio. He currently has Nike, Oakley, Trek, Radio Shack and Michelob to name a few, and one might wonder whether these are now in jeopardy.
To illustrate, I’ll use Nike as a little test subject as they are by and large the most prominent brand on the list. The case study that comes to mind will set a precedent that athletes now have more wiggle room for error when it comes to the paying public. In 2007 NFL superstar Michael Vick was charged and convicted for "Conspiracy to Travel in Interstate Commerce in Aid of Unlawful Activities and to Sponsor a Dog in an Animal Fighting Venture", or in simpler terms for having dogs fight to their death in his backyard whilst people bet on the outcome. Nike soon dropped him as a key spokesperson for their brand, as you would expect. After spending 23 months in federal prison, Vick was set to resurrect his football career. Vick came back with a bang after his move to the Philadelphia Eagles, and on July 1, 2011 he was re-signed by Nike. That’s correct, a man who had endorsed and organized the killing of dogs on his property was re-signed by Nike in 2011.
Let’s fast-forward to the current ‘outrage’ against Lance and the unproven accusations against a man who has been drug tested more than any cyclist on the planet. Do I think he’ll lose his sponsors despite never being proven guilty? Well if we use precedent, I imagine not. The old PR mantra rings true here: there is no such thing as bad press. Right now Nike will be glad this doesn’t go to court as they may hope the debate circles their sponsored athlete for years to come.