The sports world is on fire. But not the "fire" you associate with a quarterback completing numerous consecutive passes or a baseball team on a long winning streak. More like hellfire, thanks to Lance and Manti. And that's got some big brands in purgatory.
After a year that was marred by revelations from the Penn State child abuse scandal, 2013 has kicked off with Lance Armstrong's dopey Oprah confession and Notre Dame football star Manti Te'o's supporters making peace with a girlfriend that never was.
But the two troubled athletes took some folks along for their dubious rides. Here are five sports brands that were damaged by this week's developments.
1. The list has to begin with Lance Armstrong, who appeared on Oprah Winfrey's OWN network last night to publicly admit he took performance-enhancing drugs to illegitimately win his seven Tour de France races. After years of the cyclist swearing up and down that he was clean, he finally came clean.
According to social metrics site Topsy, Armstrong's name appeared in more than 200,000 tweets during the 90-minute interview. Thousands more tweets appeared without his name, but were referring to the Oprah appearance. To state that the lion's share of the tweets were negative would be kind to Armstrong. The interview did not seem to repair his nearly destroyed brand (and probably didn't exactly help Demand Media's Livestrong brand). In fact, while addressing his attempts to publicly destroy the individuals who rightly claimed he was doping to win, many Twitter users opined that his brand was further negatively transformed—from a run-of-the-mill, boldfaced liar to an apparent sociopath.
2. Manti Te'o. Let's first be clear that it's probably possible for his brand to recover. We'll have to wait to see what he says before speculating whether or not he'll ever get an endorsement deal while playing in the NFL. But the truth remains, his name was far better off before Deadspin published the "Lennay Kekua" hoax story, whether he's guilty of co-conspiring in the national mirage or lying (or is just dumb) doesn't likely matter. Distrust among the public is bad branding, and it's unlikely that the majority of consumers will again look at the linebacker without wondering about his role in a false story that wrongfully captured the hearts of millions of sports fans.
As Grantland writer Chuck Klosterman suggests, Te'o's story is probably the most bizarre/unnerving sports tale since Olympic skater Tanya Harding tried to mercilessly take out competitor Nancy Kerrigan 19 years ago. And the mockery has been relentless. For instance, the Kentucky-based independent baseball team Florence Freedom announced today that it will give away Lennay Kekua bobbleheads to the first 1,000 customers at its May 23 home game.
3. The Tour de France. Before the Armstrong story exposed the Holy Grail of cycling competitions as being overrun with dope-using cheaters, the sporting public essentially made an educated guess that performance-enhancing drugs were a big problem. Not much imagination is needed now. While recent reports have shown the rampant abuse, the subject has been truly brought to the fore. And it's reasonable to wonder how NBCUniversal's ad sales will fair for this year's Tour de France in June, airing via the media giant's NBC Sports Network cable channel.
4. ESPN/Notre Dame. Neither brand could likely afford to sit on the Te'o story as long they did, and they are paying for it. After learning about the hoax sometime last week, ESPN says it was waiting for Te'o to break the news himself. That's all well and good, except that it further pushes the perception (fair or not) that the sports network values its marketing interests in promoting and protecting brands like Notre Dame over true journalism. At the same time, Notre Dame is one of the wealthiest universities anywhere and can afford the best PR consultants. The school had roughly three weeks to tell this story and beat Deadspin to the punch, but decided to wait at least another week to have Te'o speak about it. With the story already bubbling to the surface on Twitter in recent months, it's fair to wonder whether ND should have gotten out in front of this last week, perhaps a day or two after the national title game versus Alabama.
5. Veteran sports scribe Gene Wojciechowski also suffered from the story of "Lennay Kekua." The ESPN.com columnist was essentially cross-examined this week about a piece he authored on Te'o during the football season. He's now revealed that—even though he couldn't find proof that Te'o's faux girlfriend had died or even existed—he didn't investigate further while granting a plea from the Notre Dame player not to attempt to contact Kekua's family. In recent days, Wojciechowski has been skewered on Twitter, where he hasn't tweeted since the Deadspin article broke on Wednesday.