Advantage Sharapova

Hanleigh Daniels

Early last week, sports journalists assembled at a downtown Los Angeles hotel, expecting to hear tennis star Maria Sharapova announcing her retirement from the sport. Instead, the 28-year old Russian revealed that she had tested positive for meldonium almost two months ago, during the 2016 Australian Open.

Meldonium is a substance that was only recently added to the list of prohibited substances within professional tennis and is one that Sharapova claims that she has been taking since 2006 for health issues.

In a world that demands unprecedented authenticity and transparency, statements like these should be looked at critically. This, as one would assume that the world’s highest earning female athlete for the last eleven straight years according to Forbes, would have an army of medical advisors and sport fitness experts in her court. This team would be charged with the responsibility to keep her abreast of important matter such as banned substances.

Fuelling this cynicism fire is allegations by The Times of London that Sharapova had received no less than five warnings from tennis authorities about meldonium prior to her testing positive for it in January. Sharapova has hit back at these allegation in a Facebook post to her fans, in which she asserts to not be making any excuses for not knowing about the ban, but points out that most of these notifications were “buried in newsletters, websites, or handouts.”

Regardless of whether one believes her or not, her communication around this crisis, especially during the press conference has to be commended from a crisis communications standpoint. She did a number of things right:

  • She did not sit on the news and chose to break it herself.
  • Although she was emotional during the press conference, she did manage to keep her composure throughout.
  • As a result of the abovementioned two factors, she was able to present her case from her point of view, in a very controlled and professional manner without it coming across as spin-doctor tactics.

Despite this masterclass session in crisis communications, some of Sharapova’s main sponsors have decided to call game, set and match in terms of their relationship with the sportstar. Porsche hit the brakes on its deal, while time has also ran out on the TAG Heuer-Sharapova sponsorship and Nike decided to just do it and suspend its ties with the troubled athlete.

Now, only time will tell if her excellent communication tactics will bear fruit with her relationship with her fans, sanctioning bodies, future sponsors, and a positive impact on her desire to make a comeback to the sport in future.