Nearly a week after the news first leaked, disgraced cycling champ Lance Armstrong’s admission to Oprah Winfrey that he used performance-enhancing drugs is the worst-kept secret in sports media, but communications experts say honesty and contrition are essential to restoring Armstrong’s battered personal brand.
Nevertheless Armstrong’s mea culpa, plus his promise to testify against corrupt cycling officials, represents a fork in the road to the redemption for Armstrong, Inc.
“His personal brand, as we know it, is done,” says Quency Phillips, CEO of The Que Agency and marketing manager for several pro athletes. “You’re going to hear more stories about the nasty side of Lance Armstrong…He’s going to be a snitch, so that adds to the fact that he was a cheater.”
Crisis communications protocol dictates Armstrong limit the number of lead-in and follow-up stories to his confessional interview, but Winfrey needs to hype the program – which will run over two nights instead of the originally scheduled one – to help boost ratings for her struggling network.
“Oprah has her agenda, which is to milk this for all its worth and get millions of dollars in free publicity,” says David E. Johnson, CEO of Atlanta-based public relations firm Strategic Vision. “When you’re doing something like Armstrong’s doing, you don’t want all these leaks.”
Published reports estimate Armstrong’s personal worth at roughly $ 100 million (U.S.)s, but his tumbling marketability combined with the financial fallout from his doping admission place a strain on him.
After beating testicular and brain cancer, Armstrong built a rock-solid brand on perseverance and clean living, and established the Lance Armstrong Foundation – later re-named Livestrong – to raise awareness for cancer research.
When journalists and rival cyclists suggested Armstrong used drugs to win a record seven Tour de France titles, he cyclist struck back aggressively – successfully suing the Times of London for libel, and antagonizing accusers through clever marketing campaigns.
“What am I on?” Armstrong asks in a 2001 Nike commercial. “I’m on my bike, busting my a** six hours a day.”
Even as evidence against him mounted, Armstrong’s sponsorship portfolio remained intact. But last October the United States Anti-Doping Agency released documents proving Armstrong had doped, and stripped him of his Tour de France titles, prompting sponsors like Nike, Radio Shack and Oakley to sever ties with the superstar.
“Athletes have bounced back from extramarital affairs but when you cheat the sport, that’s the hardest battle to come back from,” says Sunny Pathak, president of the Mississauga-based sports consultancy SOS Media. “I don’t think he bounces back as quickly as he believes he will. His corporate partners have walked away…He’s got a lot of work ahead of him.”
But as Armstrong’s sponsors disappear, bills accumulate.
Tuesday morning CNN reported that Armstrong was negotiating with the United States Postal Service to repay the $ 30 million (U.S.) the cash-strapped mail carrier had paid in sponsoring Armstrong’s cycling team. Their contract stipulated that Armstrong not use performance-enhancing drugs.
Meanwhile, even before Armstrong’s admission to Winfrey, the Times of Londonsued Armstrong to recoup the money paid him in the 2006 libel suit.
And when news of his doping admission leaked published reports of other lawsuits surfaced, including a race promoter in Australia seeking reimbursement for Armstrong’s appearance fee, and the U.S. Department of Justice, which may join a false claims suit filed against Armstrong by former teammate Floyd Landis.
Against this growing pile of liabilities, Armstrong hopes to leverage his ability to make money on the professional triathlon circuit. According to a Wall Street Journal story, Armstrong is focused on reducing his USADA-imposed lifetime ban from competition because he feels triathlons are his most lucrative job option.
“His appearance fees are going to be more than others’,” Phillips says. “He’s not going to win a purse. He’s going for the appearances that surround him the whole week. Where can I go speak? Where can I sell my book? Where can I sell my story again? That’s where your money is.”