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Sports, PR-crisis and corporate exit strategies – lessons to be learned

The sports world is exciting and unpredictable due to its dynamic nature. New stars may shine and current stars may fade. The lack of human control may result in various scandals or fatal incidents. A lot of people are intertwined in this world – athletes, coaches, managers, nutritionists, sponsors, fans just to mention some interrelating groups of people. Media carefully monitors all interrelationships. Moreover, competition is extremely intense; there is only one spot as no. 1. Therefore, there is no margin for error if a sports property wants to build or retain a strong brand status.

Let me list a few examples in terms of sports properties, which have gained a lot of media attention, over the past couple of weeks. From a negative angle, South African icon and ‘blade runner’ Oscar Pistorius has put himself in the spotlight as he is facing murder charges due to accusations of murdering his girlfriend. After Lance Armstrong’s interview with Oprah Winfrey, Oscar Pistorius is the next athlete super star to break through the clutter in negative fashion. He is another example of a super star, who has gone beyond his sport by encouraging people in the most horrible situations to work hard, and then he fell from grace in the next instant. His PR downfall has caused corporate sponsors such as Nike and Oakley to use exit strategies to stop all associations with Pistorius. Both corporations have publicized that they will no longer run ads featuring Pistorius. Oakley stated that  “in light of the recent allegations, Oakley is suspending its contract with Oscar Pistorius, effective immediately.”, see more. Nike pulled a Pistorius Internet ad and stated that the corporation had no intentions to portray Pistorius in future campaigns.

NASCAR is another example of a sports property being caught in negative media attention. The Daytona 500, which kicked off in Florida was firstly recognized for the beauty of the sports world’s unpredictable spirit and hence the fact that Danica Patrick found herself in ‘pole position’, i.e. the first woman to do so. This created extra positive attention around the event and reflected a bit of  ‘good timing’ since NASCAR introduced a new branding campaign (its largest branding campaign ever) in relation to Daytona 500, see more. The background for this campaign was to re-engage with new and current fan groups based on a campaign, which contains radio ads, print ads, new commercials, and digital content. Drivers will be highly engaged in the spots and the campaign will be broadcasted in both English and Spanish. The ‘bad timing’, which caused a PR crisis for NASCAR, came as there was a multi-car wreck on the final lap of the NASCAR Nationwide Series injuring approximately 30 fans in the stands due to flying car parts. This incident happened shortly before the start of Daytona 500, click here for more information. According to New York Times, NASCAR responded by stating that the organization planned a safety review after the accident, see here.

So what is there to learn from these incidents? We live in a culture preoccupied with celebrity and heroes, and athlete super stars are among the highest profile persons. Their earning power, life styles, and personal lives fascinate us (and may shock us). These examples prove the turbulent and multifaceted relationship between athlete super stars, the media and the frameworks of sporting enterprises in general. It underlines why Pierce (1995) said that sport is “media-driven celebrity entertainment”. Sport is part of the experience economy and such works as ‘an emotional economy’. Whannel (1998) identified this phenomenon when he listed that “sport is presented largely in terms of stars and narratives: the media narrativises the events of sport, transforming them into stories with stars and characters; heroes and villains”. The sports world and its actors at the highest level must keep telling themselves that they are strongly promoted entities; that requires some discipline and positive differentiation is better than its negative counterpart! Stakeholders in sports are passionate creatures and nothing hurts more than seeing our heroes or favorite sports properties being caught in negative media spotlight or having their legacies crushed. At least, history has taught us that great athletes or sports properties cannot necessarily be considered flawless or perfect! This lesson entitles or necessitates the need for crisis communication and corporate exit strategies in sports. To balance the score, let Michael Laudrup’s victory in Capital One Cup yesterday be an example of positive media attention. Swansea’s title was not expected before the season, which reflects an example of how unpredictability in the sports world may rub off on a brand in a positive way. Yes, the dynamic aspects add to the excitement of sports.



Pierce, C. P. (1995). “Master of the Universe”. GQ. April. Pp. 180-187.

Whannel, G. (1998). “Individual stars and collective identities in media sport”. In Roche, M. (ed.), Sport, Popular Culture and Identity. Vol. 5, pp. 23-36. Meyer & Meyer Verlag, Aachen, Germany.


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