This week Anheuser-Busch, Trek, and RadioShack were among the pack of advertisers pulling away from Lance Armstrong. The sponsors ended their agreements with him following last week’s release of the U.S. Anti-Doping agency’s 1000-page report that resulted in a lifetime ban from sport. But the most notable company on the list was Nike.
In 2001, Nike ran the TV ad posted at the top of this page, which features Armstrong having blood drawn and saying, “This is my body and I can do whatever I want to it.”
Michael McCarthy, who covers sports business for Sports Biz USA and Advertising Age, joined Bill Littlefield on Only A Game to discuss the ramifications for the sponsors, Armstrong, and the cyclist’s charity Livestrong.
“I don’t think it was an easy decision [for the companies] because Lance had built up so much goodwill as a result of his Livestrong Foundation,” McCarthy said. “There were plenty of cancer survivors and families of cancer patients over the years who were just so moved and inspired by his story.”
One sponsor that has stuck with Armstrong for the moment is Oakley. The sunglasses company says it’s awaiting the International Cycling Union’s final report before making a decision.
McCarthy thinks it’s a wise move for Oakley.
“I think there’s always an upside [to sticking with a spokesman] if you believe in his innocence, but … Nike went so far as to say that Armstrong misled them for over a decade, which is about as harsh and as brutal a comment as you’re going to get from a sponsor,” McCarthy said. “Oakley is hanging in there, but they’re hanging by a thread.”
Armstrong has two public personas – cyclist who likely cheated – and cancer survivor who raised millions to fight the disease. Both Nike and Anheuser-Busch have announced they’ll maintain their relationships with Armstrong’s Livestrong charity. Armstrong has stepped down from his position with Livestrong.
“I think that’s a great move by the sponsors,” McCarthy said. “It shows that their heart and their sympathies still lie with the people battling this horrible disease not with one person or one man who may have lied and may have cheated.”
Unlike Michael Vick, who Nike dropped during the dog-fighting controversy then re-signed, Armstrong’s days as a pro athlete are over. But even without that platform, McCarthy believes Armstrong could still rehabilitate his image.
“If indeed he did cheat and he did use performance-enhancing drugs, I think if he did some sort of televised mea culpa like Tiger Woods did or Alex Rodriguez did … I think he would be forgiven,” McCarthy said. “I think Americans are forgiving people. I think Americans are all about second chances. All you have to do is look at Michael Vick to [see] that. Maybe the best place for Lance Armstrong to go right now is Oprah Winfrey’s couch.”