The scandal over Russian doping in athletics could send sponsors running for cover and turn off fans worried that their track and field heroes may be cheats. Several major brands are already dealing with the fall-out from the corruption scandal engulfing the world's footballing body, Fifa. Now the World Anti-Doping Agency's (Wada) recommendation on Monday (9 November) that Russia be banned from athletics competitions for doping adds to their concern.
"Sponsors don't like scandal or controversy or anything like that. It's the last thing they need. They just want to be associated with the top events that are going to deliver huge levels of media coverage. Frankly at the moment, it looks like athletics is not going to be able to do that," said sponsorship consultant Nigel Currie.
"I think what we have seen with the banking crisis and other crises that have affected different companies and brands. Every company and brand is now absolutely paranoid about protecting their image," he added.
Nike, which is listed as an official partner on the Russian Athletic Federation's website, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Marketing experts said fans might be prepared to shrug off back-office bribes, such as in the Fifa scandal, but they are likely to be much more concerned about wrongdoing that can influence athletes' performance on the track or pitch and affect the result of competitions.
More than 90% of the £3.3bn ($5bn) commercial revenues for the London 2012 Olympic Games came from TV and broadcast rights and from commercial sponsorship, experts have said, and both Olympic and athletics sponsors will now be very closely assessing the impact of the scandal on their reputation.
Major sponsors, such as German sports equipment makers Adidas and Puma, also declined to comment on the situation. Adidas sponsors the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) and national teams, such as Australia, Ethiopia and Trinidad and Tobago, but not that of Russia. Puma is not a partner of the IAAF or of the Russian Athletics Federation but the German sports equipment company, a subsidiary of France's Kering, sponsors the national athletics organisations of Jamaica, Cuba, Switzerland and others.
While most major sponsorship deals now have "embarrassment clauses", or terms protecting sponsors against damaging activities by those sponsored, companies may have difficulty opting out if there is any ambiguity on what constitutes a breach of contract, the experts said.
"The trouble is we think it is pretty bad now. I think it is definitely going to get worse. I mean Russia is not going to take this lying down. I think they are going to say: 'Well, there are some other people involved in this as well.'"
Contracts tend to run for three to four years, Currie said, and sponsors might be nervous about renewing athletics deals. Companies, such as Coca-Cola and Visa that sponsor both the soccer World Cup and the Olympics, are facing a double hit to their reputations.
"Financially for the Olympics and more importantly the prestige and status of the Olympics will definitely face some tough challenges because of this. The Olympics have survived before with boycotts but we are in the modern world and people want to see all the top athletes and all the top countries competing." Currie added.
The state-controlled Russian energy group Gazprom in 2014 signed a memorandum of cooperation with the Russian Olympic Committee to support the national team at the 2016 and 2018 Olympic Games.