Maria Sharapova and the science of redemption

A GRIPPING week, when the high horse galloped neck and neck with the spinning machine.
Maria Sharapova and the science of redemption

Sports journalists never truly feel more alive than when a juicy doping story breaks, and they get to swap casual indifference for a sport with zealous protective indignation.

But these are special times too for the PR gurus, whose competitive instincts are never better showcased than in the race to get out in front of a story.

The gurus earned their corn with Maria Sharapova.

They can’t win ‘em all on weeks like this, but when the endorsement strategists and crisis managers and market researchers gathered together midweek in their glass war offices, there were enough big wins to toast to suggest they at least held serve.

Brave Maria. Courageous Maria. Maria faces up to her mistake.

Surely enough kind headlines to bring some good news from the focus groups.

Last Monday’s news conference, so helpfully facilitated by tennis chiefs, has been hailed a masterstroke. Seed rumours of retirement in advance so the media’s hard-hitters don’t show and the rest are unprepared for a debate on the use of meldonium.

Appear open, honest, and contrite selling a semi-plausible tale of oversight and unopened emails, and leave the inevitable hard questions that pile up later to the professional explainers.

Beautifully done.

Backed up tastefully next day by a photo op of Maria driving to the gym in her Porsche wearing her Nikes, hours after both companies suspended their deals with her.

Brand-loyal Maria throwing one in for free. Playing the long game. Cementing the impression this unpleasantness is a temporary misunderstanding.

It is a marathon not a sprint with these things, of course.

Or a gruelling baseline rally, if you prefer, the kind that requires the endurance meldonium supplies.

And we must allow the league table pronounce judgment in the fullness of time.

Forbes will tell you their rich list is the only league table that matters.

In 2015, Sharapova was the world’s highest-paid female athlete for the 11th straight year.

She will probably do a Chelsea in the 2016 table.

But there is also the Celebrity DBI, produced by Repucom, to consider, the index that “quantifies and qualifies consumer perceptions of celebrities”, that assures marketers which celebs “drive the needle for brands”.

This is a highly scientific business, the people behind it tell us, with 60% of your DBI rank based on awareness and the other 40% on seven factors: appeal, breakthrough, trend-setting, influence, trust, endorsement, aspiration.

Maria topped the index for female sportspeople before this week, and this table will eventually tell us much about her bouncebackability.

Judging by racket maker Head’s decision to extend her endorsement deal, the early numbers are crunching favourably.

Incidentally, Jordan Spieth has the highest aspiration score of any current athlete.

It seems there are only three people in the world mere mortals would rather be than Jordan Spieth; Tom Hanks, Bill Gates, or Kate Middleton.

Work to do, but at least Jordan’s putter has long ago overtaken Pippa’s backside.

With journalism due to finish up soon, and the PR men set to take over, the Celebrity DBI table may well be the future, as we try to fit a narrative to sport’s unscripted drama.

And it might well be instructive to watch all sport with a live Celebrity DBI table beside us.

You’d probably feel queasy a lot of the time, such as when Leicester’s Danny Simpson appeared on last week’s Match of the Day Xtra, and you could watch his appeal score hit its highest rank since before his conviction for assaulting his ex-girlfriend.

Or would it be more depressing if the standard of his punditry caused his trust score to drop?

It would be intriguing to see how the needle is shifted by the current plague of apologies from the Premier League’s PR-conscious gaffe-makers.

Did Francis Coquelin’s contrition rebuild trust after his White Hart Lane madness?

Or Juan Mata’s sorries after West Brom protect his carefully cultivated standing as the one footballer nobody dislikes?

It would be particularly fascinating to chart the fluctuations, on the DBI Index, of the most PR-conscious of them all, Theo Walcott.

“They are very professional and I wouldn’t be the player I am without them,” Theo tells us, on the website of The Sports PR Company, his gurus of choice in these matters. It is perhaps the fairest assessment yet of his career.

When word emerged this week of the “secret” players’ meeting that may have turned Arsenal’s season round, it was always going to be Theo doing the telling, ruthlessly pouncing during his brief window of opportunity before their season turns back the other way.

Unfortunately, Celebrity DBI doesn’t yet produce an Irish league table. Rory McIlroy would be top, of course, since he is there or thereabouts with the global big-hitters.

Conor McGregor hasn’t appeared yet, on their public lists anyway, though he will no doubt claim to be the first Irishman ranked.

It has mainly been an awareness drive, from McGregor, so far in his career.

Though the number of lookalikes around the place suggest he is also driving the needle on the influence and trend-setting fronts.

And he hardly wastes a waking moment pushing the aspiration angle, talking “multi 7s” and such.

He may have some ground to make up on appeal and trust.

Though, as the worlds of journalism and PR gradually merge ahead of the takeover, you didn’t really need a live Celebrity DBI index to measure what was happening last Sunday morning.

In the wake of McGregor’s surprise defeat by Nate Diaz — a surprise, at least, to anyone who listened to the build-up — we heard much about humility in defeat, mainly from the flock of cheerleaders who hadn’t placed much value on humility or dignity so far in McGregor’s ascent.

While at the same time a token run-out against an unprepared stand-in was being swiftly repackaged as a weight leap too far.

All of a sudden, we were being sold another narrative — maybe even a more compelling one — of hubris and setback and humility and learning and, no doubt, redemption a little down the line.

Unscripted drama? If you were the cynical type…

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