- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Several of Lance Armstrong’s once faithful and eager sponsors began pedaling away Wednesday, after months of loyally sticking by the embattled cyclist.

Nike Inc. was the first to terminate an endorsement deal with America’s most famous cyclist, but it was followed in quick succession by RadioShack Corp., Anheuser-Busch Cos. Inc., and Honey Stinger.

However, several of Mr. Armstrong’s sponsors said they will continue supporting Livestrong, the cancer-fighting charity he founded, after he stepped down as chairman the same day.

Nike, the iconic sports gear manufacturer, decided to part ways with Mr. Armstrong after “insurmountable evidence” that he participated in a doping scheme and “misled” the Beaverton, Ore., company for more than a decade.

Last week, the United States Anti-Doping Agency released an extensive report about Mr. Armstrong’s use of performance-enhancing drugs during his career.

“Due to seemingly insurmountable evidence that Lance Armstrong participated in doping and misled Nike for more than a decade, it is with great sadness that we have terminated our contract with him,” the company said in a statement. “Nike does not condone the use of illegal performance-enhancing drugs in any manner.”

Shortly thereafter, RadioShack, ended its endorsement deal with Mr. Armstrong that dates back to July 2009. The electronics retailer had been taking a wait-and-see approach. “RadioShack has no current obligations with Lance Armstrong,” the company said in a statement.

Honey Stinger, a Colorado company that makes honey-based energy foods, is cutting ties with Mr. Armstrong, even though he is part of the ownership team.

“We are in the process of removing Lance Armstrong’s image and endorsement from our product packaging,” the company said in a statement. “While this presents short term challenges, we look forward to growing our brand and offering our customers the best products possible.”

Anheuser-Busch, which has an endorsement deal with Mr. Armstrong for its Michelob Ultra beer, said it plans to stop sponsoring the cyclist after the contract expires at the end of the year.

Mr. Armstrong said he is stepping down as chairman of the Lance Armstrong Foundation, his cancer-fighting charity, so as not to be a distraction for the organization.

“I am deeply grateful to the people of the foundation who have done such hard and excellent work over the last 15 years, building tangible and effective ways to improve the lives of cancer survivors,” he said in a statement.

Mr. Armstrong’s departure paves the way for Nike, Anheuser-Busch and other sponsors to continue supporting Livestrong, an Armstrong brand that raises money for his charity, even as they terminate their endorsement deals with him. Nike donates a portion of the sales from its Livestrong products to the foundation.

In a statement on the Livestrong website, Mr. Armstrong said he was stepping down to “spare the foundation any negative effects as a result of controversy surrounding my cycling career.”

Even before the sponsors abandoned him Wednesday, Mr. Armstrong’s stock had slipped. According to Sports Illustrated’s Fortunate 50 listing of the highest-paid athletes, Mr. Armstrong made $17.5 million in endorsements in 2005. But he hasn’t cracked that list since then, largely because he lost much of his sponsorship money after he announced his first retirement seven years ago.

Still, this might not be the end for Mr. Armstrong.

David Cope, a sports marketing consultant who has worked for all seven professional teams in the Baltimore-Washington area, said Mr. Armstrong could make a good investment for new companies that want to sponsor him because they could get him for about 50 cents on the dollar or less.

“He could be an incredibly affordable investment,” Mr. Cope said. “Don’t be surprised if some other sponsors, competitors of his former sponsors, swoop in in the next few days and partner with him at a much more reasonable rate.”

He pointed out that Mr. Armstrong has been linked to drug scandals for years, so if he was a valued endorser then, he could be a valued endorser again. Sponsors should focus on his cancer survival, his charity efforts and his work ethic, but avoid his seven stripped Tour de France titles, he said.

Nike’s move Wednesday was unprecedented. The company has a long history of standing by its athletes and staunchly supported Mr. Armstrong even after he stopped fighting the doping charges in August.

Lance has stated his innocence and has been unwavering on this position,” Nike spokeswoman Mary Remuzzi said at the time. Nike maintained that stance last week, even after the doping report was released.

Nike also has supported other troubled athletes. The company stood by golfer Tiger Woods after revelations in 2009 about his extramarital affairs. Gillette, AT&T, General Motors Co. and Gatorade terminated endorsement deals with Mr. Woods.

Mr. Woods lost more than $20 million in endorsements over the next year, falling from $92 million in 2009 to $70 million in 2010, but remained the highest paid athlete for eight consecutive years until 2012, according to Sports Illustrated’s Fortunate 50. He currently is third on the list with $54.5 million in endorsements.

Nike also backed Kobe Bryant, who signed an endorsement deal in 2003 just days before he was accused of sexually assaulting a 19-year-old woman. While other brands such as McDonald’s and Coke stopped working with the basketball star, Nike just postponed using Mr. Bryant to promote products until after the assault charges were dropped in 2005.

But the mounting evidence against Mr. Armstrong was too much for Nike to ignore. After taking more time to review the USADA report, Nike reversed its decision, and terminated the company’s contract with him.

The USADA last Wednesday released the 200-page report that included sworn testimony from 26 individuals, including 15 riders, 11 of whom were Mr. Armstrong’s teammates. It detailed his role as the ringleader of a major cycling doping scheme.