Lance Armstrong dropped a bombshell when he announced on Thursday that he would no longer fight doping allegations. Although the fallout will harm his post-retirement endorsement career, folding his hand let the cycling legend avoid a potentially ugly clash with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency that could have done much more damage to his brand image and philanthropic work.
“In a sense by saying, ‘I’ve had it with this, I can’t win,’ it’s kind of a way out,” said George Belch, sports marketing professor at San Diego State University. “It kind of protects his reputation and the reputation of his charity as well.”
Armstrong maintained his innocence in a lengthy statement on his website, where he accused the USADA of orchestrating a witch hunt against him and pointed out that he never tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs.
The USADA said Armstrong would be banned for life from the sport and called for “forfeiture of any medals, titles, winnings, finishes, points and prizes." How much of all that will actually take place is unclear, since the International Cycling Union isn’t weighing in yet.
Either way, Armstrong's appeal as a pitchman has probably been dimmed, at least temporarily.
Nike is an exception to this. It quickly issued a statement in support of the seven-time Tour de France winner, saying, “Nike plans to continue to support Lance and the Lance Armstrong Foundation.”
Burton said this isn’t surprising, given Nike’s unwavering support of Tiger Woods during the golfer’s messy marital problems and stint in rehab for sex addiction. The company isn't afraid of embracing rebellious or controversial figures, and Armstrong fits right in. "He's going to pick up a a little bit of a Jesse James, outlaw halo," he said. If Armstrong and Nike can paint a picture of a beleaguered athlete who "fought the machine," that's a narrative fans still might find appealing.
Since 2004, Nike has helped Livestrong raise over $100 million and created the Livestrong yellow wristbands that became a global phenomenon with over 84 million bands distributed.
Bob Dilenschneider, founder and principal of The Dilenschneider Group, said responses from other brand partners might not be as positive. “Many of the people who had confidence in him will no longer have confidence in him,” he said. “This will lead to a significant loss."
"It's going to make all his brand partners take a wait-and-see approach," said Bob Dorfman, sports marketing expert at Baker Street Advertising.
That's what bicycle maker Trek, which sponsors Armstrong's Radio Shack Nissan Trek team at the Tour de France, plans to do for now.
Dorfman said Armstrong can probably kiss goodbye any deals that were still in the works. He's just too controversial right now. Companies that have current contracts with Armstrong might "go dark," or quietly stop featuring him, then decline to renew him when his contract expires.
"I think a lot of the higher-profile brands will clearly back away mainly because he’s kind of out of the limelight anyway," Belch said. He estimated that Armstrong will lose up to $10 million in lost endorsement opportunities. "I would think you’re talking several million dollars over the next several years," he said.
If the USADA's ruling isn't successfully contested by the ICU and Armstrong loses everything, his future earnings potential could be slashed in half, Dorfman predicted.
Although experts tend to agree that Armstrong was one of the few athletes who could still garner endorsements even in retirement, his peak years are behind him and bicycling isn't a mainstream sport in the United States.
In the court of public opinion, it doesn’t really matter. Armstrong faced accusations that he used performance-enhancing drugs since his first Tour de France win in 1999, so most people already decided whether they thought he was genetically gifted or a cheater.
Sports fans today also are generally cynical about athletes' drug use, said Syracuse University sports management professor Rick Burton. "I think there’s fatigue," he said. "The fan has kind of come to a point where they have a hard time believing anybody is clean."
Armstrong’s foundation could see a drop of up to 10 percent in donations, Dorfman predicted. "The charity I think is a little more immune," he said. "Whether he doped or not, he’s done so much for cancer patients. I think there are so many people that would look past this."
Below, TODAY's Savannah Guthrie speaks with NBC Sports analyst Alan Abrahamson on the fallout from Lance Armstrong's announcement he will not fight anti-doping charges and how much this decision will affect his public image.
Reuters contributed to this report.
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