News 8th March 2016

Sponsors ditch Sharapova over anti-doping rule violation

Nike and Porsche have suspended their relationship with Maria Sharapova, Tag Heuer has decided against renewing its contract and Evian is monitoring the situation, after the tennis star was provisionally suspended yesterday for an anti-doping rule violation (ADRV). ‘We are saddened and surprised by the news about Maria Sharapova’, read an emailed statement from the sportswear manufacturer, which has sponsored Sharapova since she was 12. ‘We have decided to suspend our relationship with Maria while the investigation continues. We will continue to monitor the situation.’

A statement emailed by the German car manufacturer was remarkably similar: ‘We’re saddened by the recent news. Until further details are released we’ve chosen to postpone planned activities.’ A statement emailed by the Swiss watch brand read: ‘Maria Sharapova was under contract with TAG Heuer until 31 December 2015. We had been in talks to extend our collaboration. In view of the current situation, the Swiss watch brand has suspended negotiations, and has decided not to renew the contract with Ms Sharapova.’

Water brand Evian did not make it clear whether its relationship with the tennis star is over. ‘We were surprised by the announcement of Maria Sharapova during her press conference on 7 March 2016’, read an emailed statement. ‘Evian has been a partner of Maria Sharapova for many years and until now, we have maintained a trustworthy professional relationship. Evian attaches great importance to health, to integrity and to transparency, and we will follow closely the development of the investigation.’

Sharapova has led the Forbes List of the world’s highest paid female athletes for the past eleven years. With prize money earnings of US$36.8 million, Sharapova is a distant second to Serena Williams’ career earnings of $75.3 million in the WTA list of the top 100 earners in the game. However, her various endorsements mean that during 2015, she earned $29.7 million against Williams’ $24.6 million.

The gulf is illustrated by the $16.3 million difference between her prize earnings of $6.7 million and endorsements, which brought in $23 million in 2015 alone. For Williams, the difference was just $1.4 million between prize money of $11.6 million and endorsements of $13 million.

As well as those highlighted above, Sharapova has endorsement deals with sportswear manufacturer Head; cosmetics company Avon; financial company American Express; and sunscreen brand Supergoop. Her own confectionary brand, Sugarpova, recently signed a deal with Baron Chocolatier to make Sugarpova Premium Chocolates. Avon and Head have said that they do not wish to make a statement at this time.

Positive test and possible sanctions

Sharapova was provisionally suspended by the Tennis Anti-Doping Programme (TADP) after testing positive for meldonium at the Australian Open, a drug she has been taking since 2006 for health issues including magnesium deficiency, an irregular heartbeat, and a family history of diabetes. Meldonium was added to the World Anti-Doping Agency’s 2016 Prohibited List in September last year, and is considered a non-Specified Substance, which means that there is less scope for a full reduction of the applicable sanctions than if the substance detected had been a Specified Substance.

When the 2015 World Anti-Doping Code came into force on 1 January last year, the standard sanction for an ADRV was extended from two to four years for non-Specified Substances. Article 10.2.1 of the Code mandates that for non-specified substances, the period of ineligibility shall be four years, ‘unless the athlete or other Person can establish that the anti-doping rule violation was not intentional’ (Article 10.2.1.2).  In that case, Article 10.2.1 doesn’t apply, and ‘the period of ineligibility shall be two years’ (Article 10.2.2). Article 10.4 allows elimination of the sanction entirely if an athlete can establish that they bore ‘no fault or negligence’ for the ADRV, however this may be difficult for Sharapova to do, given that an athlete is responsible for what they ingest (Article 2.1) and Sharapova yesterday admitted that she had not checked the 2016 Prohibited List, as sent to her by WADA.

As the substance is a non-Specified Substance under the Code, it is understood that Article 10.5.2 would apply in Sharapova’s case, which would mean that she could argue ‘no significant fault or negligence’ allowing any applicable sanction to be cut in half. As a two-year ban appears to be applicable, this would mean that she would be facing a one-year ban, if she manages to meet the requirements for proving ‘no significant fault or negligence’ imposed by the Code.

Sharapova could – in theory – apply for a retroactive therapeutic use exemption (TUE), which allows an athlete to obtain approval for a prohibited substance if it is used to treat a genuine medical condition. However, WADA’s Guidelines on TUEs (Article 7) appear to be geared towards situations where a medical emergency has required an application for a TUE, rather than one in which an athlete and their advisers appear not to have checked WADA’s updated Prohibited List. It therefore appears that although overturning the ban is possible, Sharapova faces the very real risk of getting a ban between one and four years.

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