NEW YORK — The old axiom for publicity seekers — any news is good news — seems to apply to a recent rash of headlines about some well-known sports personalities that go beyond their athletic prowess.
This story first appeared in the August 1, 2002 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
In recent weeks, a smattering of incidents had court reporters jotting down names normally written by sportswriters, such as Allen Iverson, Serena Williams and Martina Hingis.
Iverson was charged with nine counts, including carrying an unlicensed gun, but all but two charges have since been dropped. Williams’ stalker was arrested on July 4 outside the gates of Wimbledon and Hingis slapped her former sponsor, Sergio Tacchini, with a $40 million lawsuit. While activewear makers — from Reebok to Puma — are still dealing with the aftermath of some unexpected publicity, their shoppers are also taking stock.
Harvard Business School marketing professor Gerald Zaltman said: “I can’t imagine that consumers don’t make the connection. The public persona of a well-known athlete is what a company wants to leverage. When it is compromised in any way, it blurs the image.”
John Antil, a marketing professor at the University of Delaware, concurred: “This definitely registers with consumers. When it’s a serious issue, it does have impact. It gets the brand name out there. There has been speculation, and I agree, that this actually helped Reebok because it reenforced Iverson’s bad-boy image.”
After Iverson was arrested and arraigned, Reebok didn’t hesitate to pledge its support. In his defense, Denise Kaigler, vice president of global communications said at the time: “We are obviously disappointed with today’s decision. It is Allen’s celebrity status, not the facts, that continues to fuel these proceedings. We firmly believe that Allen will be vindicated and Reebok, along with his millions of fans, will still be standing by him when he is.”
For now, that remains Reebok’s official statement for any inquiries regarding Iverson. The company has a lot at stake, considering the NBA star reportedly has a $40 million, 10-year deal with the footwear and activewear giant.
This is not the first time Reebok has gone to bat for Iverson, who was arrested in 1997 for marijuana and gun possession, charges that were also later dropped. In June of last year, Todd Krinsky, general manager of Reebok’s sports division, was more forthcoming about how Iverson, the personality, affects Reebok, the brand, in an article in The New York Times at that time.
“We’ve talked to him about his image, but he realizes that it takes more than playing well on the court to be a professional,” Krinsky said. “He doesn’t think of himself as being marketable. He thinks of himself as Allen Iverson, which is marketable now.”
Puma is another brand that found itself in the unlikely scenario of seeing its big-name athlete linked to a criminal drama. After Williams’ stalker was arrested, Puma executives didn’t blink when they saw shots of her in Puma attire in articles about the incident.
Alden Sheets, president of worldwide apparel and accessories, said in an interview: “These stalkers go after these athletes for different reasons. I don’t think readers would make any association with the brand. I don’t think it helps the brand one way or another.”
He also noted that sales of Puma apparel are clicking along, especially with fashion-conscious shoppers in Williams’ age bracket.
Last year, Hingis, an Adidas-sponsored athlete, faced her own stalker, Dubravko Rajcevicher, in a Florida courtroom, and helped jail him for a two-year term for stalking and trespassing.
But her latest legal showdown, a $40 million lawsuit, is with Sergio Tacchini, an Italian brand that she claimed provided her with “defective shoes.” In 1996, Hingis inked a five-year sponsorship deal with Tacchini that was to pay her $5.6 million, but she broke the contract three years later and got on board with Adidas through another deal.
Hingis’ lawsuit “has had no effect on Adidas,” according to a company spokeswoman. Hingis is one of the brand’s top symbols, even though she has not played in a major tournament since undergoing surgery in May.
“Following her difficulties with the Tacchini products, Martina Hingis chose to wear Adidas products,” the Adidas spokeswoman said. “Her choice reinforced that Adidas meets the quality and performance needs of the elite athlete.”
Tacchini executives did not return phone calls seeking comment. In the past, the brand has said “the company can do no more than note that with Sergio Tacchini sneakers, Martina Hingis became the undisputed leader of women’s tennis worldwide, winning her last Grand Slam dressed in Sergio Tacchini,” referring to her Australian Open title in 1999.
For nearly two years, a French magistrate headed by French judge Sophie-Helene Chateau has been investigating one of Nike’s favorite poster boys, four-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong, and his U.S. Postal team, for alleged doping to enhance performance. Armstrong has vehemently denied the charges.
The inquiry is trying to determine whether the team violated a 1999 law concerning the prevention and suppression of the use of drugs and blood products. Chateau’s office is closed for an annual vacation until Aug. 4, so no update on the matter could be ascertained.
Knowing French officials said in March that they have yet to find any wrongdoing, Nike is confident that Armstrong will be vindicated, but questioned the inquiry’s length.
“Why it takes this long baffles me,” a Nike spokesman said. “At the Olympics, they run these tests in two days.”
Some Tour de France fans were less assured of Armstrong’s innocence and jeered him during last month’s race, although he heard plenty of cheers along the way, as well. Unlike two years ago — when Nike aired a commercial with Armstrong that said, “Everybody wants to know what I’m on. What am I on? I’m on my bike, busting my ass six hours a day. What are you on?” — the company has no media plans to bugle his anticipated redemption.
Nike has not seen any downturn in sales, or backlash to him or its brand, despite the investigation.
“What’s really important is what Lance has said to be true from day one,” the Nike spokesman said. “How could this affect anyone? If anything, it’s made people have more faith in Lance.”
Fila is another brand with a controversial athlete among its ranks. Howe Birch, senior vice president of sports marketing, said the company “certainly gave a lot of thought” to Jennifer Capriati’s run-ins with the law before signing an endorsement deal with her in 1999. She was stopped for shoplifting in 1993 and arrested for marijuana possession the following year.
In the late Nineties, “there weren’t a whole lot of takers” trying to woo Capriati to endorse their brands and even some Fila staffers were skeptical about her past and her athletic potential, Birch said. But unlike Iverson, Capriati was a teenager and her problems didn’t endanger others, he said.
“Her situation is such that a lot of people empathize with what she went through as a teenager,” Birch said. “It was something a lot of kids that age will encounter. She wasn’t destructive, she wasn’t mean-spirited, so people may have a tendency to be more forgiving. We all have little demons we deal with. Hers were just more public because of her celebrityhood.”
Now that she is ranked third on the women’s tour and has won her share of Grand Slam titles, people acknowledge her teenage setbacks as a plus, said Birch, adding: “Whenever I tell people we sponsor Jennifer, the first thing they say is, ‘What a great comeback.’”
Roots has also benefited from some unexpected controversy. After the pairs figure skating dispute at the Winter Olympics, the Canadian team of Jamie Salle and David Pelletier were seen wearing their Roots jackets in several interviews.
However, the Canadians were victims of bad judgement not of their own doing, said Roy Perkins, director of communications for Roots. Even still, the brand prospered. Perkins said: “It wasn’t our intention, but our logo was everywhere and that didn’t hurt us.”
Similarly, at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, the International Olympic Committee threatened to strip snowboarder Ross Rebagliati of his gold medal for alleged marijuana use. Then sponsored by Roots, Rebagliati had his picture splashed all over international papers for winning the first medal of the Games, the first Olympic medal in snowboarding and then for the controversy that ensued. In the end, he kept the gold and Roots got a lot of play.
“That notoriety kept his name and our brand out there. But we wouldn’t court the bad-boy image,” Perkins said.