The Pistorius brand fall-out: Sponsors move to limit damage

The ad that Nike has pulled. Experts say that celebrity brand endorsement, while a billion-dollar industry, comes with its own dangers. IMAGE | NIKE 

"I am the bullet in the chamber" ran the strapline for the Nike advert featuring Paralympic champion Oscar Pistorius.

As the South African athlete faced charges of "premeditated murder" in a Pretoria courtroom following the shooting death of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, his sponsors went into crisis-management mode.

Nike swiftly pulled the unfortunately-worded ads, as the perils of celebrity brand endorsement were brought sharply into focus once again.

Mr Pistorius, who has strongly rejected the murder charge, is thought to have earned several million pounds from sponsorships with Nike, BT, Thierry Mugler, Oakley, and Ossur, the Icelandic firm that makes the prosthetic carbon fibre blades he wears for races.

But in the brutal world of sports sponsorship, the "Blade Runner" stands to lose everything, even presuming his innocence.

When asked whether Nike was considering terminating Mr Pistorius' sponsorship deal, thought to be worth about $2m, a spokesman told the BBC: "We are continuing to monitor the situation closely. It is a police matter."

Another of Mr Pistorius' sponsors, M-Net Movies, a South African pay TV channel, pulled its TV ad campaign featuring the athlete, tweeting: "Out of respect and sympathy to the bereaved, M-Net will be pulling its entire Oscar campaign featuring Oscar Pistorius with immediate effect."

John Taylor, director of a sports sponsorship company and a veteran of the industry, told the BBC: "Even if Pistorius is found innocent, he is damaged goods. Brands need to act quickly and distance themselves from him; they cannot afford to wait until the case is heard.

"It's not like rats deserting a sinking ship, it's just the sensible thing to do."


Nigel Currie, director of sports marketing agency Brand Rapport, agrees, saying: "This is very different to the Tiger Woods and Lance Armstrong cases; this is life and death. There's no coming back from this."

But none of his sponsors has yet formally broken links with the Olympic and Paralympic athlete, and most are remaining tight-lipped.

Telecommunications group BT, which was recently shortlisted in the Best Sponsorship of a Sport Team or Individual category of the Sport Industry Awards 2013 for its campaign featuring Mr Pistorius, said: "Our thoughts are with all those affected by this tragedy. Given the ongoing legal proceedings, it would be inappropriate for us to comment further."

Fashion house Thierry Mugler, which chose Mr Pistorius as the face of its A*Men fragrance in 2011, said: "We have no comment at this stage." And Ossur said it was "highly premature" to make any decisions regarding its relationship with him.

Even his South African management agency was saying little on Friday.

A picture taken on January 26, 2013 shows Olympian sprinter Oscar Pistorius posing next to his killed girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp. PHOTO | AFP

Peet van Zyl, joint managing director of In-Site Athlete Management, told the BBC: "Oscar has been my client for six years. It's my business to know how much he earns in sponsorships, but we're not in any position to give you any comment at the moment given the sensitivity of the situation."

The global sponsorship industry is worth an estimated $50bn a year, according to consultancy IEG, with more than 80 per cent of that being spent on sports.

Nike, which makes annual revenues of over $24bn, spends tens of millions of dollars on sports sponsorships a year. For example, its recent sponsorship deal with Rory McIlroy, the Northern Irish golfer, will reportedly cost the company $100m to $125m over five years.

Stuck by him

When its previous brand ambassador, golf titan Tiger Woods, was exposed as a philanderer in 2009, Nike stuck by him even though many other brands cast him adrift.

"Nike's whole golf proposition was built around him. They had spent millions of dollars and simply couldn't afford to drop him", says Alan Ferguson, managing director of The Sports Business, a sports marketing consultancy.

Nike chooses sports stars that seem to embody and reinforce its high-energy brand. "My body is my weapon. This is how I fight," says one video featuring Mr Pistorius and other South African athletes. Its 2012 annual report contained a headline: "We are on the offense. Always."

As Oscar Pistorius demonstrated values of tenacity, valour and triumph over adversity, it made him an obvious fit with the sportswear giant.

But in the light of recent events, Mr Ferguson warns: "I think many brands will be taking stock and re-evaluating their celebrity endorsements now. At the very least they will be doing more detailed background checks on their sports stars."

Tattooed on Oscar Pistorius' back is a quotation from St Paul's first letter to the Corinthians (9: 26-27): "Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified."

In the unforgiving, hard cash world of sports sponsorship, Mr Pistorius could find himself being disqualified, whether innocent or guilty

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