Marketing embattled track star gets tricky

Updated: July 3, 2004, 9:57 PM ET
Associated Press

BEAVERTON, Ore. -- Nike could be facing a tough decision about how prominently it will feature Marion Jones in TV ads while she is under investigation for possible doping violations.

Jones, who won an unprecedented five track medals at the 2000 Olympics, is under investigation by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, with the Athens Games to open in six weeks.

The agency does not comment on investigations, USADA spokesman Rich Wanninger said. A spokesman for Jones referred questions to Nike, which declined comment.

Jones has strongly denied the accusations, and her chief attorney has criticized the USADA for relying on circumstantial evidence to show whether an athlete has used a performance-enhancing drug that cannot be detected in blood or urine tests.

"Nike is in a very difficult position," said David Carter, founder of The Sports Business Group in Redondo Beach, Calif.

Nike, a Beaverton-based manufacturer of athletic shoes and clothing, reported a record year for sales and profits last month. The company, according to Carter, has three main options concerning Jones:

  • Be supportive but run the risk of the doping accusations proving true.

  • Dismiss the controversy, whether true or not, and risk being viewed as indifferent to drug problems in track and field.

  • Distance itself from Jones but risk alienating a star who would find plenty of support if things turn in her favor.

    "They really are damned if they do and damned if they don't," Carter said.

    It is a problem every corporate sponsor faces with celebrities, whether they are athletes, entertainers or even politicians, said Steve Grubbs of PHD USA, a New York media firm and division of Omnicom Group.

    "It's anybody in the limelight," Grubbs said. "They are just targets for all kinds of things."

    Companies may be better prepared to deal with problems involving celebrity endorsement contracts nowadays, but timing can always be a surprise, he said.

    "I don't think that those who signed on Kobe Bryant, for example, had any idea that he would be in the position he's in right now," Grubbs said, referring to the sexual assault charges pending against the Los Angeles Lakers star.

    Nike featured Jones earlier this year as it rolled out its Olympics ad campaign as part of its "Speed" theme to highlight the performances of its top athletes. But the campaign has moved on to Serena Williams, timed for her appearance at the Wimbledon finals, and will be followed by ads featuring Lance Armstrong as the cyclist bids for a record sixth straight Tour de France title.

    Jones probably can count on endorsement contracts, regardless of the outcome of the investigation, said Paul Swangard, director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon.

    "If you're part of the popularity engine, there's always someone willing to tap into that equity," Swangard said.

    Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press