The Maria Sharapova PR onslaught shows she can spin more than a tennis ball
With the Russian a multi-million-dollar brand in herself, creating a story that will allow all parties to save face but continue making money is the key
On February 29, she shared some pics to her followers (15 million on Facebook, 2 million on Twitter, 1.4 million on Instagram) ahead of Vanity Fair’s Oscars party: tousled blonde hair, a beautiful white Preen by Thornton Bregazzi dress showing plenty of leg, strappy heels from Gianvito Rossi, and jewellery by Anita Ko.
A week later, Maria Sharapova’s appearance was very different – sober, mournful black trouser suit, hair down, little to no makeup – but the goal was the same: selling product.
The merch wasn’t high-fashion shoes or jewellery, but a concept: that Sharapova is the innocent victim of a foolish oversight, one we all could make – nothing like those dope cheats who’ve tarnished other sports.
Watching Shara’s presser, you wonder if she took some acting tips at the Vanity Fair bash – the deep sigh, the occasional crack in the voice, the touch of the hand to the heart.
If the International Tennis Federation does bring the hammer down after her positive drug test, at least she knows plenty of Hollywood powerbrokers.
Sharapova’s story sums up much that’s depressing about modern sport. Not the positive test – like most athletes, Sharapova was merely ‘supplementing’, right up to the legal limit and then stupidly beyond it when the law changed.
No, what’s most enervating is the corporate stage-management and the conviction (depressingly often correct) that the media and public are dumb enough to swallow anything if it’s presented properly (cf. the current American election cycle).
Never mind that the line being peddled – ‘I forgot to click a link and didn’t realise my medicine wasn’t allowed any more’ – doesn’t stand up to the barest scrutiny. As long as it’s believable enough – and judging by the response on social (and some old-fashioned) media, for many it is – we can get out of this bind with limited damage to Maria Inc.
I’d have far more respect for Sharapova if she’d said: “I’ve been taking this drug, like thousands of other athletes have been, for a decade because it makes us fitter and recover faster, and anti-doping authorities have been too slow to notice.
“A moron on my staff never told me it had been banned, and they have been fed to the alligators behind my Florida home.
“Banning me for a considerable period of time will cost me some money, but will cost women’s tennis a lot, lot more – let’s not be stupid here, people.”
But no. Here was the team in full force again on Thursday, hitting Facebook for round two: “I woke up yesterday morning with an inbox, in full capacity of love and compassion,” began a thank-you letter to her fans that one assumes went through an army of advisers.
Every sentence seemed honed to convey exactly the right impression – contrite, yet resolute; a sense of humour in the face of outrageous fortune; a hint or two at the injustice of it all.
One paragraph made sure to mention the all-important social media hashtags (“that you created” – definitely not us).
The letter even included the amusing line, “I needed to sweat, to push through and grind as I have done most of my life, so I made my way to the gym. That’s when I realised a bunch of tinted windowed cars were following me. The good old paparazzi, back on the trail.”
Those pesky paparazzi. In a desperate bid to avoid them, Sharapova trained in a sports bra on a Los Angeles beach. Unaccountably, pictures appeared in the media, which coincidentally illustrated her determination to get on with life as best she could despite this witch-hunt.
It also helped remind those in need of a jab just why Sharapova is the most marketable female athlete – not just because she’s a winner, but because she’s tall, blonde and beautiful. And Nike’s Swoosh happened to be on display, reassuring the sportswear company: we’ll take you back.
Nike, Porsche and Tag Heuer drew some quick and easy praise for ‘dropping’ Sharapova. But their statements all included phrases such as “suspend”, and “monitoring the situation” – no-one has been dropped just yet.
The ideal outcome for Sharapova and her fellow brands is a slap on the wrist from the ITF – which profits handsomely from her star power – and a quick return to business for everyone.
That’s why management IMG – whose US$35,000 investment in her training fees as a nine-year-old at Nick Bollettieri’s Florida tennis academy has been repaid perhaps 10,000-fold – and the rest of Sharapova’s public image shock troops have been working overtime.
If they can spin a message that allows the governing body and sponsors to continue their association with the Russian and still save face, Sharapova can get back to doing what she does best – making a whole lot of rich people richer.