The perceived undercurrent of doping in sport - and the potential damage this can do to sponsors’ brands.

July 13, 2016

"you can be found guilty of doping individually, but more dangerously, you can suffer from perceived guilt merely by association"


The summer of 2016 is a period of rich-pickings for sports lovers. The Tour de France is underway, the Euros and Wimbledon both produced champions last weekend - and we still have the Rio Olympics to look forward to. These sporting events stud our calendars, and fill our pubs. However, a darker side lurks behind the scenes, and the shadow of doping hangs over many of these events, the athletes and viewers’ enjoyment of the sports. At Attest, we wanted to explore these emotions, and what they mean for advertisers.

Our theory

We ran two pieces in parallel to discover how doping shapes our respondents’ perception of a sport. In particular, we wanted to explore correlations between a sport’s reputation/perceptions around doping, and associations of individual sport stars with doping.

We were eager to test this theory with our respondents - in particular, many have expressed interest in participating in sports-related research. We used images with captions to specify sports and athletes, to ensure full transparency and detail for every respondent. Ordering of sports/athletes was also randomised to preclude some forms of bias. These questions are (deliberately) somewhat leading, as this test was designed to gauge overall sentiment more than individual details.

The test


Our two pieces complimented each other: the six athletes were chosen from the six sports also in question. In these graphs, the athletes’ colours match to their sports.


The sports are their athletes, and the athletes are their sports

The first point to notice is the strong overall correlation between the reputation of the sports and of the individual athletes. If we ignore the results from Tennis/Maria Sharapova, the order of the results matches exactly between sports and athletes. Athletics is perceived to have the most serious doping problem, and Rugby the least.

Superficially, it seems that the reputation of a sport can be a more influential factor in shaping public perception of an individual athlete’s doping record, relative to individual reputation of athletes.

The negative influence of Cycling

For instance, Cycling is perceived to have the second-largest doping culture of all the sports under question. No doubt this is the result of the extensive high-profile exposure in 2012 of Lance Armstrong’s doping programme in the sport.

It is possible to see how the reputation of the sport extends to its athletes in the example of Chris Froome. Froome came third in our survey, behind two athletes who have recently been involved in doping scandals. By contrast, Froome has consistently presented himself as a ‘clean’ cyclist, and Team Sky, to which he belongs, was founded on the promise never to hire anybody who had ever even been associated with doping. This has enabled the team to secure and maintain its major sponsorship deals, making Sky one of the best supported teams on tour. Despite this, our survey has shown that the taint of doping still lingers over Cycling - and individual cyclists seemingly simply by extension.

The positive influence of Football

The other side of this phenomenon to remark upon is to note that the decent reputation of a sport may ‘shield’ an athlete from association with doping. According to our results, Football does not appear to have a particularly poor reputation - only 26.4% of respondents have thought about doping when watching Football this year.

It seems that the good reputation of his sport may have protected Mamadou Sakho from negative public image - despite his suspension (since dropped) for taking a suspected banned substance in April 2016. Only 19.2% of our respondents made a connection between the Footballer Sakho and doping. With a global audience and sponsorship of football teams in the Premier League accounting for hundreds of millions of pounds, there is a clear incentive to keep the sport’s image clean due to the potential damage that could be done to both individual brands sponsoring teams, and also the Premier League brand.

Maria Sharapova: the Special One?

The exception to this theory regarding the connection between an athlete and their sport’s reputation comes in the form of Maria Sharapova. Her personal association with doping ranks far higher than the reputation of her sport. Whereas only 26.2% of respondents considered Tennis a sport with a doping issue, 43.4% linked Sharapova herself to doping.

It must be assumed that the extensive media coverage of Maria Sharapova’s doping scandal and subsequent ban has influenced public opinion. The level of media interest in this case was determined by the ‘shock-factor’ of the revelation. Sharapova is the highest paid female athlete in the world, and plays a sport which is not perceived to have a significant doping problem.

What’s more, Sharapova made the announcement of the positive test herself, and has insisted throughout that she was caught out on an honest mistake resulting from a change in the rules.

Whilst our research was underway, a number of Sharapova’s largest sponsors spoke out in support of her. Johan Eliasch, Chairman of Head, who supply Sharapova’s tennis racquets, said that she had been “incorrectly treated” by the World Anti Doping Agency - and pledged to stand by her. Nike has since come out on similar lines.


From a corporate point of view, this raises the question of how significantly sponsors need to worry about their athlete’s and team’s reputation on doping - you can be found guilty of doping individually, but more dangerously, you can suffer from perceived guilt merely by association. When it comes to sports sponsorship, the jury of public opinion is creating reputational risks well outside of the individual athlete, team and sponsor’s control.

Sponsors should worry - consumers seem to respond negatively to those who seek glorification based on phony achievements. Maria Sharapova’s case is anomalous - although an association exists between her and doping, the circumstances in which it was exposed, the complexity of the background, and the low apparent potency of the doping in question have perhaps all helped to mitigate the negative consequences.

It therefore is apparent that only a rich blend of individual fame, circumstances of exposure and careful handling of press coverage, can break potential guilt by association (essentially judging by Sharapova alone).

With it’s clean image, popularity amongst those with a high disposable income and successful English national team, rugby union could be a great sport to invest your advertising dollar in the coming years.

At Attest, we’re always looking for greater detail, customisation and engagement - always seeking to explore hypotheses, and discover hidden insights within. If you’re interested in getting involved with such research, we’d love to hear from you here.