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What Sponsors Should Know About Doping in Cycling

What Sponsors Should Know About Doping in Cycling

Building and sustaining a positive brand reputation is a never-ending task for marketers. But all it takes to erode a positive reputation – particularly in a digital age where stories catch and spread instantly – is one action, one moment, or one misstep.

So is the case for the marketers associated with most famous cycling event in the world: Le Tour De France. This weekend, the 23-day event with riders from around the world will begin. And despite the prestige surround the event, cycling’s dark history with Performance Enhancing Drugs continues to have a lingering impact of the appeal of the property to both fans and corporate sponsors.

It has been three years since Lance Armstrong’s doping was brought to life. But the reputational impact has lasted. Leveraging online research tool, Google Consumer Surveys, MKTG asked 500 Canadians to name the word/theme they most strongly associate with the Tour De France (Note: Opinions reflect exclusively Canadians attitudes – answers may differ if sample was taken from European / French market). 

Seven of the top ten responses were related to either doping or Lance Armstrong, the face of the doping era. This pervasive doping perception has been fueled by over 15 years of major scandals surrounding the sport’s biggest names and events. The impact on cyclists? An assumption of guilt in which Tour De France must prove that they are clean. As for the impact on corporate sponsors? MKTG breaks down the sponsor response to notable doping scandals in the sport of the cycling:

Case Studies: How Sponsors Have Responded

1. Rabobank / Michael Rasmussen

In 2007, the former leader of Team Rabobank (a high-profile cycling team), Michael Rasmussen was fired mid-race by his own team while leading the Tour De France. Rabobank was skeptical about continuing their cycling sponsorship at the time, but it wasn’t until the Lance Armstrong scandal was revealed in 2012 that they decided to end their relationship with the sport. As a bank seeking to communicate trust and stability, the sport’s cheating allegations were became too prevalent to handle.  

2. Nike / Lance Armstrong

After a report released in 2012 confirmed that Lance Armstrong was guilty of using PEDs throughout the course of his career, he was immediately dropped by the majority of his sponsors and reportedly lost $75 million dollars (lifetime value remaining on total deals) in one day. The most noticeable sponsor to drop Lance was Nike, who played a pivotal role in the assistance of building Lance’s Livestrong Cancer Charity into a global brand. This concluded a nine year relationship that helped the foundation raise over $100 million and established the Livestrong bracelet as an international symbol for the fight against cancer. 

3. United States Postal Service / Lance Armstrong

The United States Postal Service benefited from Lance Armstrong’s run of victories as a sponsor of his cycling team from 1998 to 2004. However, once the 2012 report was released, the US Government (which owns and operates the postal service) joined a lawsuit against Armstrong claiming that he had defrauded the US Postal Service of sponsorship funds by violating cycling rules by using performance-enhancing drugs while riding for the team. Being wrapped up in a high-profile legal battle significantly distracted from the US Postal Service’s reason for partnering with Lance in the first place.   

Where Are We Now? The Cycling Sponsorship Landscape Today:

Given the level of negative attention that clouded the sport of cycling in recent years, there has been numerous shifts in the sponsorship landscape surrounding high-profile events like the Tour De France. MKTG breaks down some notable scandals.

Local Sponsors Dominate Roster: While North Americans continue to associate the sport with the Lance era of doping, attitudes are different in the Tour’s home country. Of the sponsors, partners, supporters, and suppliers of the 2015 Tour De France, approximately 75% of these brands have their headquarters located in France. Across the pond the tour is still a prestigious passion point in the sports calendar and a meaningful engagement opportunity for French brands.

Non-Endemics Have Divested: Big-name brands such as RadioShack and T-Mobile have pulled the plug on cycling sponsorship, both stating that doping revelations played a part in their decisions. As non-endemics, both brands are not reliant on the sport to tell their story. According to a Repucom report on the state of cycling sponsorship, only 7 of the top 30 brands in cycling are international consumer brands. 

The Opportunity for Sponsors:

While sponsors must proceed with caution while investing in pro cycling, opportunity still exists for brands seeking to make cycling a pillar of their strategy. 

Become a solutions provider: Brands can be part of the solution by investing in cycling and trying to improve it. This will earn them the halo effect and will resonate well with both cycling enthusiasts seeking purification of the sport, and non-avid fans whose perception of professional cycling has been altered because of its tarnished reputation. For example, Watch manufacturer Festina started the Fondation d’Entreprise Festina, established for the purpose of promoting the fight against doping after a major scandal occurred involving Team Festina in the 1998 Tour De France.

Capitalize on an unmatched engagement window: The Tour De France occurs for three consecutive weeks, attracting over 12 million spectators along its route and is broadcasted worldwide in over 188 countries. With over 4700 hours of television coverage, very few properties can offer such a significant opportunity for brand exposure.

Speak to a global audience: For brands looking to expand their consumer base into European markets, the Tour De France provides a meaningful way to reach fans in countries with some of the highest buying power in the world. The Tour is still very popular overseas as European sports network Eurosport surpassed the 50 million viewer mark in the 2014 race, and provided the best audience in the French market since 2002.

Case Study: Skoda

European car-maker Skoda – who has been a long-time investor in the sport of cycling – has maintained their commitment to the sport even in tumultuous times. They have successfully been able to hedge the risks of cycling sponsorship by focusing less on performance and creating a narrative around the sport. Skoda is a European company, with European employees, and a rich history in cycling’s roots. The company first started manufacturing bicycles in 1895, and has remained heavily involved in the sport even after they started producing automobiles. Skoda has been an official partner of the Tour De France for over 10 years, integrating assets such as the Skoda cars that are driven by support teams during the race. The company’s long term commitment to the sport continues to pay dividends and demonstrates the value of cycling sponsorship done right. 

The reputation of the Tour De France has clearly been impacted by the reputation cycling has obtained from countless doping scandals, and it continues to impact the mindset of both sponsors and fans. It is hard to determine how many years it will take for the reputation to begin to change, and there are no guarantees that we won’t continue to see major doping scandals in the future. However, there are courses of action that brands can take to help improve these perceptions, as time is not a strong enough remedy on its own.

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