Sponsor sad at loss of Lance Armstrong’s “great story”
(CNN) — Lance Armstrong’s fall from grace has left one of the cyclist’s former sponsors not only “sad” — but also without one of its biggest marketing tools.
Premier sports eyewear firm Oakley was one of several companies — including Nike, Trek and Anheuser-Busch — to end lucrative deals with the American when he was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles after refusing to answer charges of systematic drug use.
Oakley said the 41-year-old had been a “symbol of possibility” when he signed up, having inspired millions when he returned to competition after recovering from testicular cancer and then won cycling’s blue riband event from 1999-2005.
He also raised hundreds of millions of dollars for charity through his Livestrong foundation before a report by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency this year left his legacy in tatters.
“The Lance story is a sad one, with our emotional connection with that athlete,” Oakley chief executive Colin Baden told CNN.
“We have been very consistent in how we view cheating and we’ve always stuck with this over the 16 years I’ve been with the brand, so that if the governing body rules that an athlete has broken the rules, we can’t be a sponsor.
“I don’t think we’ll change any of our strategic views of who we want to promote the brand, but how that person behaves is critical to having a positive relationship.”
Many people who once backed Armstrong, following years of allegations about his potentially being a drug user, have now expressed their anger at his apparent duplicity but Baden said there was no point in recriminations.
“For me personally, it’s an emotional response. I’ve never found anger to lead to anything constructive in life — it’s just a disappointment,” Baden said.
“I can be angry, but it won’t change the situation, so I’m just left with the grief of what was a great story.”
Baden said there had been no question of Oakley dropping Armstrong until he was officially stripped of his titles.
“We’ve had athletes fall in the category before and still followed the same rule. Once the recognized governing body rules against them, we follow that governing body’s recommendations,” he said.
“I feel like we’re not responding to emotion, we’re not responding to the story of the day — we’re following the law.”
Cycling’s governing body has told Armstrong to return a reported $5 million in prize money he won at the Tour, though it will not reallocate his victories.
Texas company SCA Promotions is also seeking the return of $12 million it paid Armstrong, but Baden said Oakley would not be following suit.
The company, which has been endorsed by the likes of basketball legend Michael Jordan, tennis star Andre Agassi and now golf’s rising star Rory McIlroy, will have to plug the gap left by the fall of one of its most marketable names.
“I like to think of us as a premier sports performance company and we do really extreme product development — and sometimes the products we develop are unique and it requires somebody in what we call ‘the front row’ to explain to the masses that this is the best,” Baden said.
“So any athlete that we’re targeting to have a relationship with has to be perceived as the best. There’s a reason he’s choosing our products — it’s not because we pay him to do it, it’s because it pays to do it.”
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