Open any newspaper or log on to any news website and chances are the pages will be awash with coverage on the Lance Armstrong interview with Oprah Winfrey. Whilst we know the 7 times Tour de France winner makes a limited confession about his years of drug cheating you can’t help but wonder how this will affect the various brands he is so strongly connected with.
He’s known as the greatest cyclist ever and on the back of that he’s established a series of huge sponsorships and of course the Livestrong charity. More on that later…
Armstrong has always vehemently denied any suggestion of doping. He testified under oath in 2005 and has aggressively bullied and pursued anyone who suggests otherwise. However the evidence is now so compelling he has no option but to confess.
Some quick background on why this is such a big deal
In the early days, performance enhancing drugs were fairly basic. You might remember seeing images of all sorts of weird things that anabolic steroids did to people’s bodies back in the 80s. Then came erythropoietin or EPO (Edgar Allan Poe as the American cyclists know it). Then it was all stepped up a notch with blood doping, where a rider’s blood is removed, kept cool and then re-injected before a race. Blood doping takes serious money, serious risk and inside connections at the highest level of the sport to regularly avoid detection.
In his book ‘The Secret Race’ Armstrong’s fellow US Postal Service cycling team rider and 2004 Olympic gold medalist Tyler Hamilton admits to EPO and blood doping. He exposes the practice across his whole team and the sport’s governing body. 10 other high profile riders from the team including disgraced 2006 winner Floyd Landis have also since testified against Armstrong claiming him to be the ring leader.
So, this wasn’t just an individual cheating. It was highly sophisticated and conducted in the belief that these guys were beyond reproach. Basically they were playing everyone for fools – from the media, to event organisers, to sponsors, and of course the viewing public and the cycling community.
Given he lied for so long about such a cynical act what will be the effect on the brands associated with Lance Armstrong?
Let’s look at some sponsors first.
Nike claims that Armstrong misled them for a decade and they dropped him. Nike sure has a patchy track record when it comes to associations with damaged sportspeople.
Drug cheats like sprinters Ben Johnson, Marion Jones, Justin Gatlin and Kelli White and cyclists who now include Lance Armstrong and Tyler Hamilton. Not to mention Tiger Woods. At least his cheating indiscretions weren’t directly related to on-field performance.
The interesting thing is that when their sponsored athletes are shown to be less than perfect the Nike brand endures and transcends any negativity. This perhaps suggests that Nike diversifies their sponsorships very cleverly. Ultimately the net effect of their brand is always bigger than those they associate with.
Until recently Armstrong had featured in commercials for Michelob Utlra.
Beer brands have sponsored athletes forever. The irony doesn’t seem to faze anyone. The good people from Anheuser-Busch wasted no time in finding other ways to express their Ultra life promise without Lance’s smiling face beaming from the screen.
Trek severed its contract with Armstrong. He raced all of his Tours using this brand. The association with Armstrong is one issue but the bigger concern for Trek and other cycle manufacturers may be that cycling more broadly could well be on the nose with many people for some time to come. This could directly impact sales, especially in the US where the general public feel incredibly conned.
The International Cycling Union (Union Cycliste Internationale – UCI)
It’s an understatement to say that the UCIs credibility is suffering. This is being described in some quarters as the greatest conspiracy ever seen in competitive sport.
For years riders who have admitted to drug taking have accused the officials of being paid off to turn a blind eye. Tyler Hamilton referred to the UCI as being ‘as dirty as they come’.
Only very recently I heard it suggested that the corruption runs so deeply that cycling may be cut from the Olympic Games, particularly if Armstrong's claims – that the UCI was complicit in doping – can be proven. Indeed, the IOC has already stripped him of his bronze medal from the Sydney Olympics. If the sport of cycling is taken off the Olympic schedule, how sad is that for the clean riders who currently slog it out and for the aspiring athletes whose dreams might be denied by Armstrong and Co?
How about the Lance Armstrong brand itself?
Clearly the weight of evidence was so heavy that he simply had to address the issue. I guess we’ll learn more from the Oprah interview but one theory doing the rounds is that he wants to be able to compete in triathlons, which is where his career started. Some admission of guilt and cooperation might see his lifetime ban lifted. Despite his faults, it appears that Lance Armstrong is incredibly competitive and has no plans to slow down at 42.
Reports suggest that, provided Armstrong is not in jail for perjury, he’ll do quite well on the speaking circuit and will secure lucrative book deals. This will help pay back some of the many millions he’s facing in legal bills and sponsorship dollars which, in the case of the US Postal Service team, is actually owed to the US Government. Surely he won’t pick up any endorsements, or will he?
To me, this one poses the biggest question. How will the Livestrong brand fare?
It’s such an inspirational story. He established Livestrong after overcoming testicular cancer that had spread to his lungs and brain. And then went on to race again, winning 7 Tours. It’s a great story of the victim triumphing in the face of adversity. As one of the world’s most famous survivors of cancer he's been an inspiration to millions. We all recognise the yellow 'Livestrong' bracelets as a symbol of cancer awareness and hope. Evidently more than 80 million have been sold worldwide.
And clearly plenty want to believe in him. Apparently there was a spike in contributions to Livestrong in late August in the wake of Armstrong announcing that he wouldn’t continue to fight doping allegations, and his Tour de France victories were being taken from him.
But how will they feel after his confessions?
A spokesperson for CharityWatch in Chicago said recently, 'Individuals that admire and support an individual who is later found out to be severely tarnished, don't want to admit it, don't want to admit that they've been duped … People, though, do need to trust a charity to be able to support it.'
He’s so closely associated with Livestrong there seems little point in trying to distance Armstrong from it. The Foundation is sticking by Armstrong as a visible advocate for cancer issues. But they’re playing their cards close to the chest until the dust settles.
An official statement on the Livestrong website says, in part, “We are charting a strong, independent course forward that is focused on helping people overcome financial, emotional and physical challenges related to cancer. Inspired by the people with cancer whom we serve, we feel confident and optimistic about the Foundation’s future and welcome an end to speculation.”
There are plenty of charities and support services for sufferers of cancer and other life-threatening diseases. And public financial support is critical. It’ll be interesting to see whether people view Livestrong as a cynical marketing ploy or some sort of elaborate distraction? Maybe, for some people, his battles with cancer transcend anything he might have done in cycling – good or bad.
One thing’s for sure. It’s hard to see him credibly playing the victim card anytime soon. What do you think?
Alan Kewley is a Group Account Director at BCM <