The chaos surrounding the Rio Olympics subsided for a time as countries around the world celebrated the incredible feats of their athletes. Records were broken, medals were won, and all was well and good.
And then, Ryan Lochte.
You’ve probably heard the tale of one Olympic swimmer misrepresenting his actions, and their repercussions, at a gas station in Rio. Lochte issued an apology for his behavior, but that didn’t stem the tide of growing negative perception surrounding the event. Nor did it stop companies for which he was a spokesperson from severing their ties with the controversy-embroiled swimmer.
Four major sponsors ended their relationship with Lochte earlier this week, including Speedo: “While we have enjoyed a winning relationship with Ryan for over a decade and he has been an important member of the Speedo team, we cannot condone behavior that is counter to the values this brand has long stood for,” Speedo said in its statement. “We appreciate his many achievements and hope he moves forward and learns from this experience.”
With today’s information age, it’s clear that companies are quicker to cut ties with spokespeople for misbehavior – Lochte’s sponsors took around a millisecond to drop him. These days, it’s easier for athletes to get caught and even easier for the world to weigh in on their actions.
With that being said, here’s a look back at some of the biggest scandals the world has seen, courtesy of celebrity athlete spokespeople:
- Tiger Woods: In 2009, it was revealed Woods had cheated on his wife with multitudes of women. Sponsors began dropping Woods left and right after he announced he was taking a break from golf months later. Gillette, Accenture, AT&T, Gatorade and Tag Heuer were big name sponsors who cut ties, while Nike instead cut his contract value in half.
- Barry Bonds: 2007 was a rough year for Barry, as he was a high-profile baseball player caught using steroids. Sponsors like MasterCard and Charles Schwab ended their relationship with Bonds, resulting in him losing millions of dollars.
- Lance Armstrong: The Tour de France poster boy broke America’s heart when, in 2012, it was discovered that he took performance-enhancing drugs. As a result, he lost seven Tour de France jerseys and endorsements from companies such as Nike and Anheuser-Busch.
- Michael Vick: In 2007, Vick was indicted for running a dogfighting ring. According to Fortune, “two days after the indictment, Nike canceled its new Vick shoe, but did not pull existing Vick products from shelves.” Other sponsors, such as Reebok, dropped Vick within 10 days. Though, after serving jail time, he was welcomed back to the NFL and into an endorsement contract with Nike, which quickly earned ire and a Change.org petition.
Even though the reputational (and financial) risk for companies associated with athletes has grown alongside the explosion of social media, celebrity athlete spokespeople aren’t going away anytime soon. At the end of the day, the brand equity and profit earned from an athletic endorsement outweighs any drawback. According to Opendorse, in 2012, Nike sold over $100 million worth of LeBron James’ signature shoe just in the U.S. alone.
Companies, since scandals from the likes of Woods and Armstrong have exploded, are continuing to leverage celebrity athletes, but with caution. According to Fortune, one strategy is that companies have moved away from endorsing a single athlete in favor of a team of athletes, with “none of the marketing focusing on one over the others.” Take a look at Under Armour, for example.
So, in sum, today’s age of constant information makes fanning the flames of scandal incredibly easy, so proceed with caution and take preventative measures when working with high-profile spokespeople.
And never fear, if you’re a celebrity dealing with scandal, there’s always Dancing with the Stars.