16 Jan 2018

Sporting infamy: Marketing athletes' bad attitude

From Summer Times, 9:10 am on 16 January 2018

'Bad-boy' sport stars are on the rise with sponsors willingly taking on poorly behaved athletes or turning scandal into brand recognition, but it's not a level playing field for women, an AUT researcher says. 

Nick Kyrgios.

Australian men's player Nick Kyrgios is known as one of the bad boys of tennis. Photo: Photosport

AUT senior lecturer in marketing Marilyn Giroux told Summer Times she had been working with colleague Jessica Vredenburg on researching the emergence of athletes people love to hate.

"We're seeing a bit more of those athletes who don't have the perfect, incredible and attractive image, so we're looking at this aspect of ... how is this new trend going out for the consumers but also the sponsor and how can they deal with that." 

Dr Marilyn Giroux

Dr Marilyn Giroux Photo: supplied

She said the 'bad boy' attitude was sometimes part of what appealed to sponsors, and Australian men's tennis star Nick Kyrgios was a perfect example. 

"Yesterday we were sitting in a stand and people were actually talking about how Nick Kyrgios is so talented, how he's refreshing for tennis, how some of the other guys are a little bit boring, so he's bringing a lot of good things to the tennis. 

"Of course, when - like yesterday, when he got a code violation for swearing at the crowd - you get all of those negatives.

"And people also go to Nick Kyrgios games to see him behave badly."

Dr Giroux said it was easier for men to fit into that role compared to women, who were more likely to be judged harshly for bad behaviour. 

"Kyrgios, I think people kind of go with the flow of it and people enjoy it and even love to hate him, but with the Williams sisters they did a few little - I would say - dodgy things in the past and at the US Open a few years ago and they got ... people were a lot more critical of them."

"And even Maria Sharapova right now I feel people are still angry about what she did."

Maria Sharapova and the Italian Open trophy, 2015.

Maria Sharapova with the Italian Open trophy, 2015. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

"Like, about doping and stuff, I feel like men get it a bit easier when they do something wrong. 

She said there was also an element of attraction to the bad-boy persona.

"There's a certain aspect of women like a bit of badboy-ish attitude when they look at men, where I don't think it's necessarily the truth for men." 

This photo released by the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office shows Tiger Woods following his arrest.

This photo released by the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office shows Tiger Woods following his arrest. Photo: Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office / AFP

She said sponsors would weigh up the risks of signing up such a personality against the benefits of their image. 

Other infamous sports stars like Tiger Woods, Michael Phelps and Aaron Smith who had a really good image but whose actions - namely multiple affairs and drink driving; drink-driving and drugs; and an affair - damaged their brand, were also changing the way sponsors approached different athletes, Dr Giroux said. 

"So, more and more, brands are trying to have clauses as part of their agreement now that endorsers have to behave in a certain way to be able to go on with the endorsement deals. 

"The case for example of Tiger Woods, I don't think Nike thought it was a possibility. He was always being seen as the face of golf, so the likelihood was really low.

"Nike and other brands - like Gatorade - they lost more than hundreds of millions of dollars. 

"I think people are more conciliant when it's someone like Kyrgios that is making the mistake versus Tiger Woods because people are more surprised when Tiger Woods is making the mistake." 

She said Nike and Tiger Woods had been so closely tied for so long that cutting those ties may have been seen as too much at the point where the scandal of his affairs was made public. 

Tiger Woods has ruled himself out of the Ryder Cup

Tiger Woods Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Conversely, smaller brands actually gained recognition for splitting from stars who had behaved badly, as was the case with Ryan Lochte who falsely claimed he and three fellow US swimmers were robbed at gunpoint in a taxi by men with a police badge in Rio de Janeiro during the 2016 Olympic Games.

It turned out the group were actually challenged by security guards after they vandalised a service station. 

"What we saw with Ryan Lochte was that a lot of brands gained positive association after cutting ties with him," Dr Giroux said.

"Especially for lower equity brands ... so basically what they tried to do is associate themselves with higher-equity brands - in this case Speedo for example, or Ralph Lauren - and they gained a lot of awareness. 

US swimmers Townley Haas, Ryan Lochte and Conor Dwyer celebrate after winning the Men's 4x200m Freestyle Relay Final at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.

US swimmers Townley Haas, Ryan Lochte and Conor Dwyer celebrate after winning the Men's 4x200m Freestyle Relay Final at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. Photo: AFP PHOTO / GABRIEL BOUYS

"So they got more recognition by cutting ties with him than actually associating themselves with the athlete." 

She said there was also a public perception of a distinction between professional and personal failings. While Maria Sharapova and Lance Armstrong's doping was intrinsically tied to their professionalism, Tiger Woods' infidelity was seen by many as relatively unrelated to his ability to play golf. 

"So yeah, he was able to gain some of his sponsors back when he actually got back into golf a little bit. 

"Majority of the time I would say unless you're really well known and you have a strong fan base it's really really difficult to [re-]gain those sponsors. 

Again it was different for Ryan Lochte however, she said. 

"He lost a lot of sponsors, but gained a lot, some of them afterward ... one was a cough drop company. 

"So they had a slogan that was related to forgiveness, so you can also play that card ... he got on Dancing with the Stars in the United States." 

"O by Cirque du Soleil" performer Benedikt Negro as the character Le Vieux talks with Olympian Ryan Lochte and dancer Cheryl Burke as they rehearse for Dancing with the Stars.

"O by Cirque du Soleil" performer Benedikt Negro as the character Le Vieux talks with Olympian Ryan Lochte and dancer Cheryl Burke as they rehearse for Dancing with the Stars. Photo: AFP

She said being a role model had always been a part of the job of being a professional athlete. 

"Basically we expect sportspeople to be good, they're receiving a lot of money ... We're expecting them to be role models, we're expecting them to be good people not just sports people. 

"Last week we were at the ASB Classic, and asking people around who was their favourite player. Not surprising to me was Roger Federer, and a lot of people talked about his ability to play tennis and how he was probably the best tennis player ever. 

"But a lot of people talked about how he was a good role model for kids, his passion for tennis is important, a lot of people talked about the fact that he was a good person, he has a good image." 

Dr Marilyn Giroux and Dr Jessica Vredenburg's analysis "What Did Ryan Lochte Do? The Double-Edged Sword of Endorsers Behaving Badly" is set to be published in the International Journal of Sports Marketing and Sponsorship

Roger Federer

Roger Federer is more of a traditional sports star, famous not just for his talent but his passion for the sport and morals. Photo: Photosport

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