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The Strong Arm of the sponsor: what sports marketing must learn from the Armstrong affair

By Andrew Boulton

January 19, 2013 | 6 min read

There are very few people in this world I would happily punch full-on in the face. Given my own enfeebled condition, actively seeking out violent confrontation is probably unwise.

‘Liar, liar, Lycra pants on fire.’

But Lance Armstrong is a man I would cheerfully beat unconscious with a bicycle pump.

This week we have seen Armstrong make the least surprising admission of guilt in the history of sport. It has received a mixed reception, but I came away from the experience feeling like I had been party to a thoroughly self-pitying (not to mention self serving) media exercise.

Although all the performance enhancing drugs may have been purged from his system, the ‘smug’ was very much present. After all, this is a man who has, until very recently, ferociously and indignantly denied these allegations, to the point where he even posted a photo of Twitter with him posing with his 7 illicitly won Tour de France Yellow Jerseys.

But while some may feel that Oprah let Armstrong off the hook, what emerged from the interview was that one particular group that had hit Armstrong with all their might (and hurt him considerably more than some weakling attempting to thrash him with a Halfords bike pump).

And that group was the sponsors. Those several huge companies who had (albeit cynically) provided finance towards Armstrong’s life affirming brand of ‘American Dream’ meets ‘Triumph over Adversity’.

So when that ‘Triumph’ was revealed to be considerably chemically enhanced and built on a foundation of lies, bullying and utter contempt for the American people, the sponsors unceremoniously pulled the plug.

In the interview he revealed that the calls came one after another in the space of a just a few days. Nike, Trek, Giro, Anheuser-Bush all cut their ties to the tune of what Armstrong claimed to be $75m. At this stage of the interview he rather mournfully declared that ‘it was all gone and probably never coming back’. Oprah nodded sagely, while I desperately urged her through my television to smash him in the face with a coffee table. She must have not heard me.

But that is now the power of the sporting sponsor. At the very top of your chosen sport there is potential for an athlete to far exceed their earnings from the game itself than from sponsors. This leaves a distinctly sour taste in the mouths of most genuine sports fans, but that is the way of the world now and we must live with it.

But with that vast sponsorship comes, not so much responsibility in the real sense of the word, but rather scrutiny. Corporate sponsors as a species are a twitchy bunch. Each and every word and action from their sponsors is examined at length to ensure it is a proper and favourable representation of the brand.

Armstrong spectacularly failed to embody that representation and the endorsements were whipped away faster than you could say ‘liar, liar, Lycra pants on fire.’

And although the acts of the sponsors were entirely self-serving, and many of these companies are in no position to assert their morality, it was a powerful, painful and entirely satisfying punishment for Armstrong.

Yet although he is the most infamous recipient of a sponsor’s abandonment, he is not the first high profile sportsman to receive such treatment.

Tiger Woods, once remarkable golfer (and as it turns out insatiable sex pest) suffered similar comeuppance following his extra marital affairs in 2009. In 2010 alone, Tiger parted company with General Motors, AT & T, Gatorade and Gillette (although given how terrible those Gillette ads were, he probably might have been secretly relieved about that one).

This dented his still considerable pockets to the tune of $23 million, although his chief sponsor Nike did stick with him, probably feeling they had invested so hugely in him it was imprudent to cut and run. For now.

However it did mark a considerable change in their attitude to Tiger. No longer filling the ‘Messiah’ role in their brand once occupied by Michael Jordan, Tiger was now very much ‘on notice’. Disappointing form has caused Nike’s eye to wander, most longingly in the direction of current world number one golfer Rory McIlroy.

So much so that just a few weeks ago McIlroy signed a five year deal with Nike reputed to be worth £150m, outstripping even Tiger’s mammoth endorsements.

So, as long as it doesn’t come out that Rory likes to harpoon puppies (which I’m sure he doesn’t) he will be just fine.

But what has the Armstrong affair taught the world of sports marketing? That sportsman are unreliable? That the pressures associated with becoming and maintaining a position at the pinnacle of your sport is not helped by vast amounts of money and exposure? Possibly even that such monumental sponsorship prizes on offer exclusively for those who excel in their sport is leaving the door open to the kind of ‘win at all costs’ attitude of Armstrong and his repugnant ilk?

Let’s at least hope something has been learnt from this murky business. Even if it’s just to not let Rory McIlroy near your puppy. Just in case.

@Boultini

Andrew Boulton is a copywriter at the Together Agency. Lance Armstrong would batter him in a fight.

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