Nike resumes Sharapova contract as partners react to ban

US sportswear giant Nike has elected to reinstate its endorsement contract with Maria Sharapova as the Russian tennis superstar’s commercial partners reacted to news of her two-year ban from the sport.

Sharapova was yesterday (Wednesday) handed a two-year ban by the International Tennis Federation (ITF) having failed a doping test at the Australian Open in January. An independent tribunal appointed under the 2016 Tennis Anti-Doping Programme found that Sharapova committed an anti-doping rule violation and as a consequence disqualified the affected results and imposed a period of ineligibility of two years, backdated to January 26.

The 29-year-old provided a urine sample on January 26, after her quarter-final match at the Australian Open grand slam tournament in Melbourne. The sample was found to contain meldonium, a metabolic modulator that was included on the 2016 Wada Prohibited List from January 1.

Sharapova has said she will appeal the ruling at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) and Nike has stated it will now resume its backing. Nike suspended its relationship with Sharapova in March after she initially confessed to the failed doping test at the Australian Open. At the time, Nike said that it was “saddened and surprised” by the development and said that it would put its lucrative and long-term endorsement deal on hold while the ITF carried out its investigation.

Nike’s current eight-year deal with Sharapova is said to be worth $70m (€62.8m). Her ban from tennis is set to end at midnight on January 25, 2018, with Nike’s contract also reportedly set to end that year.

“The ITF Tribunal has found that Maria did not intentionally break its rules,” Nike said in a statement. “Maria has always made her position clear, has apologised for her mistake and is now appealing the length of the ban. Based on the decision of the ITF and their factual findings, we hope to see Maria back on court and will continue to partner with her.”

The five-time grand slam champion has claimed that she was unaware the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) barred athletes from using meldonium, also known as mildronate, as of January 1. Meldonium is not approved for use in the United States or European Union and increases blood flow, which improves exercise capacity by carrying more oxygen to the muscles.

In its full ruling, the tribunal said: “The manner of its use, on match days and when undertaking intensive training, is only consistent with an intention to boost her energy levels. It may be that she genuinely believed that mildronate had some general beneficial effect on her health but the manner in which the medication was taken, its concealment from the anti-doping authorities, her failure to disclose it even to her own team, and the lack of any medical justification must inevitably lead to the conclusion that she took mildronate for the purpose of enhancing her performance.”

Sharapova has been known as one of the world’s most marketable athletes and in the wake of her admittance to the failed doping test her commercial partners took differing approaches to their partnerships. Sports equipment manufacturer Head extended its endorsement contract, stating she had “earned the benefit of the doubt” after making an “honest” mistake. Head has partnered with Sharapova since 2011.

Head has been strident in its backing of Sharapova and chairman Johan Eliasch again attacked the process that has led to her ban in a fresh statement. Eliasch said: “Based upon the evidence provided by Miss Sharapova, Wada and the chief science officer of the Banned Substances Control Group, it appears that the ITF have made their decision based upon a flawed process undertaken by Wada.

“It clearly highlights how Wada have broken their own rules in determining whether or not meldonium should be banned. We believe, based on the facts and circumstances provided to us, that this is a flawed decision. Head will continue to support Miss Sharapova.”

Meanwhile, beauty products company Avon has said it will not extend its partnership with Sharapova. Avon signed Sharapova in 2014 to be the face of its Luck perfume brand, but has now said the engagement will be phased out across markets over the forthcoming months and will be complete by the end of the calendar year. 

“Avon’s relationship with Maria Sharapova was a limited engagement that focused on one of our fragrances,” Lindsay Fox, Avon’s senior manager of corporate communications, told the PR Week website. “The engagement is set to expire, and we had not planned to extend this relationship regardless of the current situation.”