Djokovic entangles sponsors in Australian Open vax uproar

Jan 13, 2022, 6:34 PM | Updated: Jan 14, 2022, 8:36 am
FILE - Defending men's champion Serbia's Novak Djokovic practices on Rod Laver Arena ahead of the A...

FILE - Defending men's champion Serbia's Novak Djokovic practices on Rod Laver Arena ahead of the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022. The drama over Djokovic's ability to defend his Australian Open title without a COVID-19 vaccine has sparked fierce public debate, but there’s little sign it threatens his multimillion-dollar sponsorship deals. It's unclear if the No. 1 seed can compete Monday, Jan. 17 after Australian officials revoked his visa for a second time. (AP Photo/Mark Baker, File)

(AP Photo/Mark Baker, File)

A lot of people are angry at Novak Djokovic. And his sponsors may just wait it out.

The world’s top-ranked men’s tennis player is the top seed and defending champion at the Australian Open. But it’s unclear if he can compete Monday after Australian officials again revoked his visa because he lacks a COVID-19 vaccine, leaving his attorneys to appeal his possible deportation.

The Serbian, known for his gluten-free diet and use of hyperbaric chambers, isn’t giving up the fight to seek his 21st Grand Slam. It’s his chance to overtake Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal as the men’s recordholder — and every brand loves a winner.

So far, there’s no sign Djokovic’s sponsors, including French automaker Peugeot, clothing brand Lacoste and Swiss watch maker Hublot, plan to drop him.

He has $30 million worth of endorsement deals, according to Forbes, making him among the highest-paid athletes in the world. Still, he has never had the broad appeal of Federer, who makes triple the amount from endorsements despite losing his No. 1 crown years ago and being sidelined with injuries.

Federer’s squeaky clean image, underscored by his calm demeanor on court, has won him near universal adoration by fans and officials. Djokovic, meanwhile, has his brash moments like smashing his racquet and confronting referees, which some brands may be gambling is a hit with fans.

There is a line though, and one thing sponsors have to determine is whether an athlete acted illegally or immorally if they want to try to use a bad behavior exit clause in a contract, said Tim Crow, a U.K. sports marketing consultant.

In Djokovic’s case, “that’s pretty nuanced,” Crow said.

If he’s allowed to play, and wins, there will be even less pressure for sponsors to act.

“He will be labeled as the most successful male player of all time, and I think that provides a reason for sponsors to be more willing to take that risk and remain with the athlete,” said Ceyda Mumcu, professor of sports management at the University of New Haven.

Assessing the public relations aspect is complex. Fan opinion around Djokovic is polarized. He’s a national hero in his native Serbia. Australians have mostly turned against him, but the rest of the world is more divided, Crow said. If he had major health care companies as backers, they might have different reactions than a consumer-products company like a watch or auto brand. And COVID-19 vaccines are themselves divisive.

What happened to Aaron Rodgers, the football player who got COVID-19 in November after misleading the NFL about his vaccination status, illustrates how different companies make assessments based on their brand values. He was dropped by a local health care company company. But a major backer, insurer State Farm, ramped his ad spots back up after briefly cutting back, according to an analysis by Apex Marketing Group.

Some of Djokovic’s sponsors tried to distance themselves from the situation and others, including Peugeot and Lacoste, declined requests for comment. But there was no sign any planned to cut ties.

“Novak Djokovic is his own person,” Swiss watch brand Hublot said. “We cannot comment on any of his personal decisions. Hublot will continue its partnership with the world number 1 tennis player. “

Austria’s Raffeissen Bank said its decision to sign Djokovic to a multiyear partnership was made long before the recent Australian Open headlines.

“As Novak Djokovic’s sponsor, we are closely observing the current situation,” the bank said.

Sports fans rationalize athletes’ behavior if they are admirers — up to a point. It’s riskier if a transgression is tied to the actual performance of the sport, as in a doping scandal, or if it’s such an egregious criminal act that people all agree it’s wrong, said Americus Reed, professor of marketing at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

Being against COVID-19 vaccines, or lying on paperwork, in our polarized world, may not rise to the level of nixing an athlete’s contract for bad behavior. Millions of people worldwide refuse to get vaccinated, despite assurances by public health authorities that they are safe and effective.

Still, “if you lose enough fans, then you’ll lose sponsors,” said Nicole Melton, professor of sports management at University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Sponsors have pulled deals in the past because of performance drugs and criminal acts.

Nike, bike maker Trek and Budweiser brewer Anheuser-Busch dropped cyclist Lance Armstrong in 2012 as part of fallout from his doping scandal. After tennis star Maria Sharapova failed a drug test in 2016, sponsors including Porsche, Nike and Swiss watch brand Tag Heuer abandoned her.

Two of South African Olympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius’ major sponsors, Nike and eyewear maker Oakley, distanced themselves after he was charged in 2013 with the shooting death of his girlfriend.

For Djokovic, there may not be any sponsor deals dissolving now, said Mumcu, the professor. But it may become an issue later.

“In the long term, if he becomes the public face of the anti-vaccination movement, I think that’s problematic,” she said.

Even so, she notes that athletic performance remains the ultimate draw.

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