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Mon, June 17

Column: Final 'cost' facing Armstrong still not yet counted

Franck Prevel/The Associated Press<br>In better days, back on July 25, 2004, Lance Armstrong kisses Sheryl Crow as he celebrates his sixth straight Tour de France win in Paris.

Franck Prevel/The Associated Press<br>In better days, back on July 25, 2004, Lance Armstrong kisses Sheryl Crow as he celebrates his sixth straight Tour de France win in Paris.

Lance Armstrong said it best at a fundraiser for his cancer-fighting charity, Livestrong, in Austin, Texas, on Friday night. During his foundation's 15th anniversary celebration the embattled former seven-time Tour de France winner said he has been through a "difficult couple of weeks." Those difficulties included hits to his reputation as well as his pocketbook.

After the federal government closed its criminal investigation for misuse of taxpayer funds last February, some observers felt Armstrong would receive a pass for his doping activities. But in the wake of the United States Anti-Doping Agency's (USADA) release of its blistering report documenting Armstrong's doping schemes, companies dropped the charismatic cyclist as a product endorser like rats fleeing a sinking ship.

The first company to desert Armstrong was his most loyal - and lucrative - supporter, Nike. The "swoosh" had supported Armstrong despite the doping allegations that swirled around him for years. That position quickly changed when the footwear and clothing giant acknowledged the "insurmountable evidence" contained in the 200-page USADA report, evidence that Armstrong elected not to contest even though his representatives referred to the investigation as a "witch hunt." Once Nike jumped overboard, a host of other companies, including Trek BicycleCorp, energy drink maker FRS Co., energy foods maker Honey Stinger, RadioShack, Anheuser-Busch and helmet maker Easton-Bell Sports, Inc., quickly followed.

Some marketing experts estimated that Armstrong has earned between $15-18 million from product endorsements this year and could lose as much as $150-200 million over the next decade. That's one expensive drug habit.

Armstrong follows a long line of product endorsers who haven't lived up to the image hoped for by companies when they sign athletes as pitchmen. High profile endorsers Tiger Woods, Kobe Bryant and Michael Vick are among the most recent examples of athletes who fall into that category. However, there's a major difference between those three athletes and Armstrong. Woods, Bryant and Vick all strayed in their personal lives, but have been beyond reproach on the field of play. Armstrong cheated his sport, and arguably, its fans, even if you believe the allegations that virtually everyone in cycling is a cheat.

Although Nike dropped Vick as an endorser, they elected to stick with both Woods and Bryant even though other companies jettisoned them. Woods acknowledged his sexual indiscretions and promised to seek professional help for his "addiction." Rape charges against Bryant were dismissed and the civil suit against him was settled. Vick served time in prison for dogfighting, and after his successful return to the NFL, Nike re-signed him as an endorser.

Beyond the lack of competitive integrity that separated Armstrong from Woods, Bryant and Vick the latter three were all in the prime of their careers when their reputations were sullied, poised to continue their on-field successes and, not coincidentally, their value as celebrity pitchmen. Armstrong's professional cycling career is behind him and while he remains an admired figure for his charitable work - Livestrong has reportedly raised $500 million in the fight against cancer - his value to Nike was made problematic when USADA stripped him of his Tour de France titles. It should be noted that although Nike terminated its relationship with Armstrong individually, it will continue to manufacture and sell products with the Livestrong name.

Can Armstrong recover from the hit to his reputation and once again become an effective product endorser, as Woods, Bryant and Vick were able to do? The odds are stacked against him. In addition to the fact that Armstrong will never again be a world-class cyclist, given his history of denial it is doubtful if he will ever be able to bring himself to accept responsibility for his actions as the others have done.

According to Davie-Brown Entertainment, a company that tracks celebrities' appeal using online consumer polls, as recently as June 2008 Armstrong was ranked the 60th most effective product spokesperson in the world. That ranked him alongside swimmer Michael Phelps and actor Brad Pitt. Fast forward to September of this year and Armstrong had fallen to 1,410 on the list, a free-fall that put him in the company of rapper Nicki Minaj and actor Jeff Goldblum.

Armstrong may have escaped criminal liability for his actions, but $200 million is a stiff price to pay for doping.

Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, and Minor League Baseball team owner. He is a Professor and Chair of the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and is a contributing author to the Business of Sports Network. Jordan can be reached at jordan.kobritz@cortland.edu

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