Lance Armstong and Ryan Giggs: A tale of two athlete brand scandals

Canadian Business, May 24th, 2011

One’s a legendary soccer player, the other a legendary cyclist. But the images of seven-time Tour de France champ Lance Armstrong and Manchester United star Ryan Giggs have both been splashed over sports media in the last few days.

Giggs is a player whose amazing talent has been coupled with a squeaky clean image, garnering the 38-year-old Welshman endorsements reportedly worth more than $37 million. But the player is now embroiled in an adultery scandal that, thanks to British libel law, made it all the way to the House of Commons. His recent tale has plenty of soap opera-ish plot points – alleged affair with reality TV star who blabs to tabloids, pay-offs to media and court injunctions to have his name removed from the story, having his alleged indiscretions repeated over Twitter by more than 75,000 people and then have his dirty laundry aired in parliament. And all this before the coveted Champions League Final game on Saturday against Barcelona.

It’s a lot to withstand but despite the tabloid media maelstrom, not many are suggesting Giggs’ sponsors will jump ship. A little philandering in pro sports these days is more akin to a pulled hamstring than to career suicide, and Giggs’ alleged transgressions are hardly Tiger Woods-ian in scope. Chances are it will end up a chuckle-inducing footnote to the career of someone many consider the greatest player Manchester United has ever seen.

Mr. Armstrong, on the other hand, is a different story altogether. Long followed by accusations of doping, the cycling champ and cancer survivor has continued to thrive as a spokesperson both for his Livestrong Foundation and sponsors like Nike. But on this week’s episode of 60 Minutes, former teammate Tyler Hamilton said he saw Armstrong take performance-enhancing drugs. While it may seem like just another accusation to be beat, some are wondering if his images as The Cyclist and The Cancer Activist can be separated. An AdAge poll got everything from “Livestrong just died hard” to “the brand is way bigger than he is now.”

Dave Zirin writes in The Nation that because Armstrong’s popularity and brand strength come from a place deeper than traditional sports fans, his reputation will survive anything that former teammates or federal prosecutors can throw at him. Are Livestrong’s annual revenues of more than $50 million enough for people to forgive or ignore any questionable behaviour in sports? For many, it is. As Livestrong CEO Doug Ullman told Fast Company last year, “In the sports world, he’s a very polarizing figure. In cancer, he’s not.”

Two very different stories, similar only in that these are two athletes that get paid millions of dollars to not only ply their trade in sport but also represent a multitude of marketers. It’ll be worth watching brands and fans continued reaction to both.