What is it about the living legends of sports? These larger-than-life heroes — people like Barry Bonds, Tiger Woods, and Lance Armstrong — should be symbols of lasting integrity, yet they often seem to self-destruct, shocking their fans and shaming their sport.
Still, these personalities’ brands somehow weather the storm and they move on. Woods, publicly debased for his marital infidelities in late 2009, proved the point when he finally won a tournament late last year, the first since his 2009 Australian Masters victory. The situation with Lance Armstrong, however, plays by a different set of rules. The world’s greatest cyclist was disgraced by doping charges that resulted in his being stripped of his seven Tour de France titles and banned for life from cycling. In August, Armstrong decided not to fight the charges, a move that many interpreted as admitting guilt without saying it.
Now, the boom is officially being lowered on Armstrong by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). The organization announced on October 10 that it is releasing its “Reasoned Decision” in the Lance Armstrong case (click here for a PDF). The USADA called it “the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen.”[more]
The USADA evidence being submitted is in excess of 1000 pages and includes sworn testimony from 26 people, including 15 riders with direct knowledge of doping activities. “The evidence also includes direct documentary evidence including financial payments, emails, scientific data and laboratory test results that further prove the use, possession and distribution of performance enhancing drugs by Lance Armstrong,” says the USADA in a statement on the “US Postal Service Pro Cycling Team doping conspiracy.”
The USADA lists by name eleven teammates of Armstrong who it says came forward to testify. It will be difficult for Lance Armstrong to escape the damage this final judgment will cause to his brand. When Armstrong made his earlier decision not to contest the charges, he did gain the support of various corporate sponsors.
Brands that have supported Armstrong over the years include Anheuser-Busch, Nike, and Oakley; however, these sponsors pointedly said they would continue to support his cancer-fighting foundation, probably best known for its “Livestrong” brand, which appears on tens of millions of yellow bracelets and has spawned many marketing partnerships and a line of branded merchandise. The foundation celebrated its fifteenth anniversary recently with the launch of a limited edition line of apparel from Nike.
It’s also a dark day, of course, for the embatteled U.S. Post Office (which sponsored the team from 1996 to 2004) and the subsequent title sponsor of the U.S. cycling team, Discovery Communications, not to mention the sport of cycling and the Tour de France. Loren Smith, former chief marketing officer for USPS, told the Wall Street Journal, “I think it was a very worthwhile sponsorship. It’s unfortunate that whatever has come out from it in the aftermath is carrying negative baggage and detracts from it.” That said, in light of the USADA doping report, “If we had known about it, we would have ditched the whole program.”
This brings the case against Armstrong to a close and, with it, comes the end of Armstrong’s illustrious and unprecedented cycling career, even if he refuses to rebut the allegations that he not only doped but was responsible for a “doping culture” that has sulled his record, his former teammates’ legacy, and the sport through which he rose to fame. His earning power as an athlete and brand ambassador will surely decline, but any lasting damage to his image will likely be buoyed, at least a little, by the good his foundation has done in raising awareness about cancer and other health issues.
Lisa Delpy Neirotti, a sports management professor at George Washington University, told USA Today in August, “[Armstrong’s] goodwill — I don’t think it will wane. There will be some disappointment, sure, but overall, if he keeps raising money for cancer research, it won’t be an issue. … We, as a society, have a short memory. It’s old news now, when he performed, if he used drugs. People want to believe in their heroes.” Of course, that’s what she said before today’s report.
Armstrong’s PR team, website, Facebook or Twitter feeds have yet to release any statement or response, unlike his fellow former USPS cyclists, some of whom have been banned from competition as a result of the USADA action. Armstrong’s Twitter bio, in fact, still reads: “Father of 5 amazing kids, 7-time Tour de France winner, full time cancer fighter, part time triathlete – LIVESTRONG!”
Your thoughts on how today’s news will impact Armstrong’s personal and philanthropic brands?