Brands are weighing up the difficult question of whether to maintain sponsorship of unvaccinated high profile sports stars, amid a widespread public backlash against those who have not been jabbed against Covid-19.
By John Reynolds
The issue has been bought to light by the case of the world number one tennis player Novak Djokovic, who has declined to be vaccinated against the virus. Djokovic is not alone: famous sports stars on both sides of the Atlantic have not been jabbed. Some stars, such as NFL star Aaron Rodgers, have lost endorsements, but many brands don't see being an anti-vaxxer as a deal-breaker, particularly if it's not harming sales or their brand's reputation.
But in Djokovic's case in particular, things could change and the star could lose millions in endorsements, as the controversy looks to rumble on. Andy Sutherden, a sports sponsorship consultant, said: "Sponsorship in the modern day is even more sensitive to the court of public opinion than it ever has been."
Djokovic controversy rumbles on!
Djokovic is not competing in the Australian Open tennis tournament due to a long-running saga which culminated in him losing a visa battle that centred on the fact he had not been vaccinated against Covid. There could be further bad news for the top tennis star, though. He is also liable to be banned from entering Australia for the next three years while the French authorities are also set to issue a vaccine mandate for sports stars too, meaning he could miss the French Open Grand Slam too. Not only could this scupper Djokovic's bid to become the leading Grand Slam winner of all time, but it also potentially casts doubt about the Serb preserving his existing roster of sponsors and attracting new ones.
Djokovic worth over £160m with some blue-chip sponsors
Djokovic, who has now returned to Serbia, is said to be worth over £160m and has lucrative endorsement deals with Lacoste, Asics, Peugeot, Austrian bank Raiffeisen Bank International and Swiss watch brand Hublot, which is thought to be worth over £20m. In total, his endorsements are thought to net Djokovic around £22m a year. Lacoste, which is owned by Swiss group MF Brands and signed a commercial tie-up with Djokovic in 2017, has said it plans to "review" the events that led to his deportation from Australia. Hublot, meanwhile, told the Financial Times that the tennis player "was his own person" and that it "cannot comment on any of his personal decisions".
What the experts say
In light of the controversy, sponsorship experts think that it's likely, for the moment, that Djokovic will hold on to his sponsors. But being portrayed as an anti-vaxx poster boy might mean he will struggle to attract new sponsors, particularly as he enters the late stage of his career. Rupert Pratt, sales and marketing director, EngageCraft, says Djokovic's sponsors knew the type of character they were endorsing. Pratt said:" 'Where Djokovic is concerned, it's not like he has suddenly changed his personality. If am one of his brands, it is not a surprise that he is uncompromising and driven and a slightly prickly individual."
Djokovic controversy different to Tiger Woods!
As a point of difference, Pratt compares the Djokovic controversy with the Tiger Woods one. The Woods controversy led to the golfer losing his wife, public respect along with big named sponsors such as Accenture after he admitted marital infidelity over allegations involving several women. It is different as Djokovic's sponsors are not buying into his appeal as a personality, like Woods, says Pratt. "Djokovic is not a sponsorable asset for what he does off court, he is a sponsorable asset for what he does on court," adds Pratt. Pratt also points out that Djokovic's anti-vaxx stance, although controversial, does not, for now, amount to bringing his commercial tie-ups into disrepute.
However Pratt points out if, say, Coca-Cola were on Djokovic's roster of sponsors, then the tennis star would be in a more perilous position. "If Coke were one of his sponsors, they would be thinking about it a lot harder than Lacoste. "Because Coke is a global brand that is sponsoring him not because of his tennis, but because of his appeal as a personality," adds Pratt.
Djokovic could struggle to attract future sponsors
Sutherden, meanwhile, believes the saga will impact on Djokovic's ability to attract new sponsors, as vaccines are an "emotive subject". He said: "He will be predominantly known now as the high profile sports star that was an anti-vaxxer and was very public in talking about the fact that he would not get vaccinated. "Part of the reputational risk for sponsors is knowing that Djokovic is very happy to socially interact with a virus that has killed millions around the world."
Sutherden also believes his existing roster of sponsors could look to try and terminate their contracts with him should there be evidence that he is harming sales or their brand reputation. The crux of the issue could well be, as pointed out by Simon Dent, a sponsorship expert and sports agent, is whether Djokovic misrepresented immigration officials, which does "create problems with his sponsors". But Dent points out that solely being an anti-vaxxer is not a deal-breaker for sponsors.
Top flight footballers not been jabbed
He points out that there are many top flight Premier League football stars who have not been vaccinated, which has not led to sponsors dropping player endorsements. Dent says: "With professional sportspeople, and someone like Djokovic, they have spent their whole lives being told to read every single label and be very, very aware what they put in their bodies. "They are now being encouraged to have vaccinations where there is no research at all on the long term consequences of vaccinations."
PR disaster for the tennis star!
What all experts agree on is the whole episode, from a public relations perspective, has been ill handled by the Djokovic camp. Dent points to the "lack of transparency" and "honesty" from the Djokovic camp, which has been at odds with the public clamour for understanding why people opt not be jabbed. Pratt said the tennis star has managed the whole saga "incredibly badly from a PR perspective" which "highlights the bubble he operates in".
NFL stars lose endorsements over jab issue
In the US, meanwhile, a raft of NFL stars have lost healthcare endorsements over their stance on the Covid vaccine. Green Bay Packers stars Rodgers lost a nine-year sponsorship with Prevea Health, a Green Bay-based physicians group. Prevea said the 37-year-old stance was at odds with its commitment "encouraging and helping all eligible populations to become vaccinated. Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins, meanwhile, lost a sponsorship with a Michigan-based Holland Hospital after his vaccination status was revealed. Whether sponsors in the US are less tolerant of anti-vaxxers is a moot point, but it seems for some healthcare sponsors, not getting jabbed is a deal breaker.
As the Djokovic rumbles on, it could be that more damaging information for the tennis star comes out. If so, and the information relates to Djokovic acting in an dishonest and unlawful manner, then his days of being a bankable sponsorship star may be over for good.