“I made a mistake and everyone does that. I am human. I had a lot of emotions yesterday.” This was the official response to reporters’ questions about ski star Lindsay Vonn’s decision to upload and then delete a Facebook post of herself on video using a hammer to demolish skis made by her sponsor, Head. Interviewed later by Don Riddell of CNN World Sport, Vonn admitted that she could be more careful with social media while Riddle politely moved on to the sports history news that Vonn also achieved her 20th FIS Alpine World Ski Cup victory this weekend, more of the kind of news that sponsors seek to have associated with their brands.
Even the most sophisticated branding and marketing experts would find this case example a tough challenge. Vonn has worked for years to achieve both skiing success and a personal brand she calls “strong is beautiful.” Some athletes might empathize with Vonn’s disappointment about Vonn’s painful slide after one of her Head skis came off in a downhill race on Friday. But most consumers who buy sponsors’ products are not professional athletes. They are unlikely to see the connection between an image of “strong is beautiful” and demolishing expensive skis on camera for a global audience.
Other global brands are impacted by Vonn’s performance and will have to think about how to best manage their image moving forward. Vonn is closely linked with her sponsor Red Bull thanks to ubiquitous photos and videos of her wearing branded sportswear. Vonn’s ski demolition video looks more like a good reason to switch to bottled water or Lipton ice tea. The 2016 Winter Youth Olympic Games are concluding today and Vonn’s role as an official Global Ambassador for the event casts the demolition video in a different light. Vonn’s success has also made her the poster girl for the FIS Alpine Ski World Cup and the US Ski Team, which have their own sponsor relationships to manage.
The FIS social media guidelines are widely considered a good example by other sports federations. They explicitly counsel FIS athletes not to “talk negatively and gossip about companies, brands, sports, competitions or athletes,” or “post in the heat of the moment, while under the influence or in any highly emotional situation.” As public relations savvy as Vonn’s response to reporters’ questions was, she is also sending the message that the FIS guidelines are not a high priority for her. The current dilemma for U.S. Skiing is also awkward. The online link to the U.S. Skiing Code of Conduct is not working and identified as unsafe by Microsoft security essentials.
Vonn’s demolition episode and her decision to post it online shares an eerie similarity with a similar incident of her ex-boyfriend’s ex-wife Elin Woods swinging a golf club at the golfer and his SUV after erupting over his marital infidelity habit. This is not the kind of publicity sponsors have in mind when they budget millions of dollars to sponsor a sports star.
The whole model of sports star sponsorship deserves tougher scrutiny by marketing departments. Faced with brand management challenges like the Lance Armstrong doping scandal and Michael Phelps’ DUI conviction, marketing professionals may want to seek out less risky alternatives to sports sponsorship than backing a sports star. Sponsoring individual events such as the Audi FIS World Ski Cup or HSBC World Sevens Series in rugby gets a lot of visibility with fans that is independent from the headlines of an individual sports star.