Tennis superstar Maria Sharapova has a shot at clawing back some of the big-money endorsement deals suspended after she admitted taking a banned heart medicine on Monday — and the best way to do that is just to keep on winning, experts say.
Sharapova's announcement came as a huge blow to the Wimbledon winner's career-long pristine image, which has helped her land multi-million dollar endorsements over the years. The International Tennis Federation is investigating her use of meldonium, which is not approved by the Food and Drug Administration, and affects blood flow.
Many of Sharapova's sponsors swiftly halted endorsement deals after her admission. Nike, which had a $70 million contract with Sharapova, said they were "saddened and surprised by the news" and were going to "suspend" their relationship with Sharapova pending an investigation.
Luxury watchmaker Tag Heuer said it was not going to renew its contract with Sharapova "in view of the current situation."
The tennis phenom banked close to $30 million last year, according to Forbes, making her the highest paid female athlete, surpassing contemporaries like Serena Williams and Caroline Wozniacki. The magazine has estimated Sharapova's earnings off the court to stand as much as $200 million.
With so much on the line for Sharapova, the question remains on: Will she be able to bounce back?
"We live in a forgiving world, and we all love a good comeback story," said Joe Favorito, sports media consultant and professor at Columbia University. When crisis hits, the best thing to do is for an athlete to be honest and forthcoming— and to do it quick, says Favorito. Sharapova humbled herself by immediately making a personal statement admitting responsibility for taking the drug, which is the first step toward brand rehabilitation, he said.
Sharapova is hardly the first all-star to find herself in an embarrassing situation. In 2008, baseball player Andy Pettitte admitted to using human growth hormone in an announcement not too far off from Sharapova's. With similar composure and emotion, Pettite apologized to fans.
After the initial public gasp, Pettitte went back to baseball and won a World Series with his team. His jersey now hangs at Yankee Stadium alongside those of other former Bronx Bombers.
"Being good at sports and winning heals all wounds," said Whitney Wagoner, director of the University of Oregon's Warsaw Sports Marketing Center. "We build up athletes to be perfect icons. We are then happy to see them screw up and love going through the thorny details. But eventually we want to see them rise up and come back from adversity. Coming back and being a champion is what the public wants."
And athletes have come back from far worse personal challenges than those facing Sharapova, Wagoner said. Kobe Bryant and Alex Rodriguez both managed to rehabilitate their image after public scandals — mostly by coming back as winners.
One factor that may lay in Sharapova's favor is the fact that meldonium is a newly-banned substance, said Wagoner. This could potentially buttress the fact that it was an "honest mistake," she said.
That will be for tennis officials to decide.
Sharapova will likely do a round of apologies while the investigation is ongoing, but she shouldn't stay off the tennis court too long if she wants to get back on top. An extended absence from the sport may leave her endorsements vulnerable, said Todd Fischer, a sports expert with GMR Marketing.
Fischer says although it's hard to replace a global sports celebrity like Sharapova, the next generation of tennis stars, as in any sport, are hungry for their chance. And for many companies who want to show a strict "no-tolerance" policy, moving on might be the best option.
"They have to save their own brand reputation," said Fischer.