By Michael McCarthy
Anheuser-Busch’s Michelob Ultra brand, Oakley sunglasses and Nike are sticking by Lance Armstrong despite the latest blood-doping allegations swirling around the former champion cyclist.
But make no mistake. The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s move to ban Armstrong from competition for life — and strip him of his record seven Tour de France titles — has further damaged his already weakening brand.
Things have to be pretty far gone before Nike bails on an endorser. After the 40-year-old cancer survivor announced he was dropping his appeal to the agency’s doping charges, the Swoosh stood by him the way it stood by Tiger Woods and Kobe Bryant.
The Lance Armstrong Foundation’s LiveStrong campaign has raised nearly $500 million to fight cancer. Paul Chibe, A-B’s VP-U.S. marketing, cited Mr. Armstrong’s cancer work as one of the reasons the brewer’s standing by him.
"Our partnership with Lance remains unchanged," Mr. Chibe said in a statement Friday. "He has inspired millions with his athletic achievement and his commitment to helping cancer survivors and their families."
Oakley said in a statement it "supports its athletes who respect and honor the ethics of sports until proven otherwise."
That’s the good news for Mr. Armstrong. The bad news is his positive ratings with consumers were dropping, and his negatives climbing, even before the latest controversy.
The public that formerly lionized Mr. Armstrong were tweeting hashtags like #CheatStrong and #LiveWrong on Twitter Friday. The cyclist should expect a tougher time landing new contracts and renewing current corporate sponsors come contract time, warn sports-marketing experts.
Henry Schafer, exec VP of Marketing Evaluations, which measures celebrity Q scores, said Mr. Armstrong’s positive Q scores have dropped by two-thirds since he won his last Tour de France in 2005. His negative Q scores have more than doubled since then — and for the first time they outweigh his positive scores.
Said Mr. Schafer: "He’s been in a downward spiral. All these doping allegations are not helping him by any stretch of the imagination. I know he’s going to rest his laurels on the LiveStrong organization he founded. But I don’t think it will be enough."
Meanwhile, sponsors such as Nike might have to deal with problems they didn’t know they had, said Mike Paul, founder of MGP & Associates PR.
Social media has given athletes a bully pulpit to share their personal views. For example, what if another Swoosh endorser hammers Mr. Armstrong as a cheater on Twitter or in interviews, Mr. Paul asked.
"Someone might tweet something that hurts the Nike brand. You better line up your athletes and give them some talking points," Mr. Paul said.
Mr. Armstrong maintained his innocence in a statement, saying he was tired of defending himself against a "one-sided and unfair" process:
"There comes a point in every man’s life when he has to say, ‘Enough is enough.’ For me, that time is now."