Pistorius fall-out: The perils of sports sponsorship

Nike "I am the bullet in the chamber" ad campaign
Image caption The Nike ad campaign featuring Oscar Pistorius was swiftly pulled after the crisis broke

"I am the bullet in the chamber" ran the strapline for the Nike advert featuring Paralympic champion Oscar Pistorius.

As the South African athlete faced charges of "premeditated murder" in a Pretoria courtroom following the shooting dead of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, his sponsors went into crisis-management mode.

Nike swiftly pulled the unfortunately-worded ads last week, as the perils of celebrity brand endorsement were brought sharply into focus once again.

Mr Pistorius, who has strongly rejected the murder charge, is thought to have earned several million pounds from sponsorships with Nike, BT, Thierry Mugler, Oakley, and Ossur, the Icelandic firm that makes the prosthetic carbon fibre blades he wears for races.

But in the brutal world of sports sponsorship, the "Blade Runner" stands to lose everything, even presuming his innocence.

On Thursday 21 February, Nike suspended its contact with the athlete, thought to be worth about $2m, saying: "We believe Oscar Pistorius should be afforded due process and we will continue to monitor the situation closely".

Fashion house Thierry Mugler, which chose Mr Pistorius as the face of its A*Men fragrance in 2011, also withdrew all its campaigns featuring the athlete on Wednesday.

Another of Mr Pistorius' sponsors, M-Net Movies, a South African pay TV channel, pulled its TV ad campaign featuring the athlete, last week tweeting: "Out of respect and sympathy to the bereaved, M-Net will be pulling its entire Oscar campaign featuring Oscar Pistorius with immediate effect."

'Damaged goods'

John Taylor, director of a sports sponsorship company and a veteran of the industry, told the BBC: "Even if Pistorius is found innocent, he is damaged goods. Brands need to act quickly and distance themselves from him; they cannot afford to wait until the case is heard.

"It's not like rats deserting a sinking ship, it's just the sensible thing to do."

Nigel Currie, director of sports marketing agency Brand Rapport, agrees, saying: "This is very different to the Tiger Woods and Lance Armstrong cases; this is life and death. There's no coming back from this."

Telecommunications group BT, which was recently shortlisted in the Best Sponsorship of a Sport Team or Individual category of the Sport Industry Awards 2013 for its campaign featuring Mr Pistorius, said: "Our thoughts are with all those affected by this tragedy. Given the ongoing legal proceedings, it would be inappropriate for us to comment further."

Ossur said it was "highly premature" to make any decisions regarding its relationship with him.

Even his South African management agency was saying little on Friday last week. Peet van Zyl, joint managing director of In-Site Athlete Management, told the BBC: "Oscar has been my client for six years. It's my business to know how much he earns in sponsorships, but we're not in any position to give you any comment at the moment given the sensitivity of the situation."

Martial language

Image caption Mr Pistorius' source of inspiration

The global sponsorship industry is worth an estimated $50bn (£32.2bn; 36.4bn euros) a year, according to consultancy IEG, with more than 80% of that being spent on sports.

Nike, which makes annual revenues of over $24bn, spends tens of millions of dollars on sports sponsorships a year. For example, its recent sponsorship deal with Rory McIlroy, the Northern Irish golfer, will reportedly cost the company $100m to $125m (£62m to £77m) over five years.

When its previous brand ambassador, golf titan Tiger Woods, was exposed as a philanderer in 2009, Nike stuck by him even though many other brands cast him adrift.

"Nike's whole golf proposition was built around him. They had spent millions of dollars and simply couldn't afford to drop him", says Alan Ferguson, managing director of The Sports Business, a sports marketing consultancy.

Nike chooses sports stars that seem to embody and reinforce its high-energy brand. "My body is my weapon. This is how I fight," says one video featuring Mr Pistorius and other South African athletes. Its 2012 annual report contained a headline: "We are on the offense. Always."

As Oscar Pistorius demonstrated values of tenacity, valour and triumph over adversity, it made him an obvious fit with the sportswear giant.

But in the light of recent events, Mr Ferguson warns: "I think many brands will be taking stock and re-evaluating their celebrity endorsements now. At the very least they will be doing more detailed background checks on their sports stars."

Tattooed on Oscar Pistorius' back is a quotation from St Paul's first letter to the Corinthians (9: 26-27): "Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified."

In the unforgiving, hard cash world of sports sponsorship, Mr Pistorius could find himself being disqualified, whether innocent or guilty.

More on this story