Sponsors drop Maria Sharapova after failed drug test announcement

BERLIN/LONDON — Swiss watchmaker TAG Heuer became the latest sponsor to sever ties with Maria Sharapova on Tuesday, as the world’s highest-paid female athlete started to count the cost of a failed drug test and likely ban from tennis.

Sports firm Nike and German luxury car maker Porsche also said they were suspending their relationship with the five-time Grand Slam champion as the 28-year-old Russian awaits a decision on whether she will be banned.

The failed drug test at January’s Australian Open, one of four annual Grand Slam events, will be costly for her at a time when sports bodies and sponsors are taking a tough line following a series of corruption and doping scandals.


Sharapova earned $29.7 million last year, Forbes magazine reported, and most of it came from endorsements, appearances and royalties rather than her victories on court.

She was the world’s highest-paid female athlete last year for the 11th consecutive year, and Forbes put her off-court career earnings at more than $200 million.

“We’re now entering a zero tolerance era for sponsors,” said Rupert Pratt, co-founder of sports sponsorship agency Generate. “It is now seen as not acceptable to ‘stand by your man’ because of the amount of scrutiny corporates are now under.”

Sharapova, who lit up women’s tennis when she won Wimbledon in 2004 as a 17-year-old and is still ranked among the top players, announced on Monday she had tested positive for meldonium, which she said she was taking for diabetes and low magnesium.

The drug is also used to treat chest pain and heart problems as it boosts blood flow. Some researchers have linked it to increased athletic performance, better endurance and speedier recovery. It was recently listed by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) among its prohibited metabolic modulators, which include insulin.

Sharapova said she had been taking the substance for a decade for health reasons and had not read an email informing her that a ban on its use in sport, imposed by WADA, had come into force on Jan. 1.

She will be provisionally suspended from playing tennis from March 12 and could be prevented from competing for Russia at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics this year.

Sharapova’s deal with Tag Heuer had expired at the end of 2015, and the company had been in talks to extend the collaboration, it said on Tuesday.

“In view of the current situation, the Swiss watch brand has suspended negotiations and has decided not to renew the contract,” TAG Heuer, a unit of French luxury goods group LVMH, said in a statement.

Porsche, a division of Volkswagen, said it was suspending Sharapova’s role as its brand ambassador.

“We regret the current news about Maria Sharapova. Until further details emerge and we are able to analyze the situation, we have decided to suspend planned activities,” it said.

It followed Nike Inc, the world’s largest sportswear maker, which said it was “saddened and surprised” by the news when it announced it was putting ties on hold with the player.


Danone SA, the maker of Evian water, a longtime Sharapova sponsor, said on Tuesday it was “surprised” by her failed drug test and would monitor developments. Another sponsor, cosmetics maker Avon Products Inc, declined to comment on its endorsements.

At a media conference on Tuesday, Serena Williams, the top-ranked player in women’s tennis, declined to comment on Nike’s decision.

She said, however, that more generally, “in sport and in life, there’s always a double standard.”


Brian Socolow, an expert in sports law and a partner at Loeb & Loeb LLP, said it was no surprise Nike suspended its relationship with Sharapova, as it is especially sensitive to doping allegations after its experience with disgraced U.S. cyclist Lance Armstrong.

But he said Sharapova may yet win back sponsors’ support. “She has the chance, like other athletes, to redeem herself and regain her leadership position as an endorser,” said Socolow. “She will have to demonstrate that it was an honest mistake and there are no other improper reasons she took the drug.”

There was some skepticism about the sponsors’ motives from tennis fans on social media.

Ben Stanley tweeted on Tuesday, “Nike is in the business of making money, not offering moral guidance. If it paid to keep Sharapova on, they’d do it.”

Cate Fry tweeted: “Respect for @MariaSharapova addressing the issue of a medication she is taking…it’s a shame her sponsors are not more understanding.”


Sharapova, who lives in the United States, is the seventh athlete in a month to test positive for meldonium.

She said her family doctor had been giving her mildronate, also called meldonium, for 10 years after she frequently became sick, had irregular EKG results, a magnesium deficiency and a family history of diabetes.

“It is very important for you to understand that for 10 years this medicine was not on WADA’s banned list and I had been legally taking the medicine. But on January the first, the rules have changed and meldonium became a prohibited substance.”

Sharapova competed in one tournament while using meldonium as a banned substance.

“I made a huge mistake. I know that with this I face consequences and I don’t want to end my career this way,” she said.

Russia’s tennis chief leapt to the player’s defense, and said he expected the player to compete at this summer’s Olympic Games in Rio.

“I think this is just a load of nonsense,” Shamil Tarpishchev, president of the Russian Tennis Federation, said. “The sportsmen take what they are given by the physiotherapists and by the doctors.”

Meldonium is not approved in the United States but is available in Russia, Latvia and other countries in that region.

Over the past month, Russian cyclist Eduard Vorganov, Russian figure skater Ekaterina Bobrova, Ethiopia-born athletes Endeshaw Negesse and Abeba Aregawi, and Ukraine biathletes Olga Abramova and Artem Tyshchenko have all tested positive for meldonium. Russian news agency R-Sport quoted the Volleyball Federation of Russia as saying Russian volleyball player Alexander Markin had also tested positive for the substance.

Sports bodies have taken a tough line in recent months to wipe out doping and corruption. The world athletics’ governing body, the IAAF, has suspended Russia’s athletics federation over doping and soccer’s governing body, FIFA, has removed its top leaders and began an overhaul in a corruption scandal.

Sharapova is the most prominent tennis player to test positive for a banned substance in recent years and the biggest name since Martina Hingis was banned in 2008 after recording a positive test for a metabolite of cocaine

The International Tennis Federation’s anti-doping program calls for a four-year suspension for a positive test.

That ban can be reduced in various circumstances, such as if the player shows no significant fault or negligence. If a player bears no fault or negligence, there is no suspension.

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