Djokovic and the ensuing fallout from his anti-vax stance: reaction of his sponsors

February 19, 2022

World No. 1 tennis player. Splendid fitness icon. Age on his side. Oozing with energy. A global figure. Twenty Grand Slams. With such a reputation, it is but inevitable that the world not only lauds such public figures, but is also influenced by their decisions, personality traits, brands they endorse and much more. Implicit in this is the fact that with fame comes responsibility, responsibility to act in a manner that exerts a positive influence on the followers and leads to a lasting impact.

The decision to deport the Serb from Melbourne just a day before the Australian Open over its COVID-19 vaccination rules has attracted attention of the world media. While Djokovic emphasised on ‘freedom of choice’ for his decision to remain unvaccinated, the denial by the Australian government to Djokovic to compete for his 21st Grand Slam has dejected his fans worldwide. Will this event mark the beginning of the end of a career that has the potential to change the history of tennis? Is Djokovic being too obstinate, keeping personal good of protecting his freedom of choice over collective good of countering vaccine hesitancy? How will his brand sponsors react?

Many brands across the world have endorsed the Serbian superstar – Adidas, Lacoste, Peugeot, Asics, Seiko Watch Corporation, ANZ Banking to name a few. Undoubtedly, these brands, having been banking upon the star player’s impeccable career stint until the 2022 Australian Open, would be in a conundrum. In a recent interview with the BBC, Djokovic unequivocally stated that he is “willing to pay the price” when asked about the possibility of skipping future Grand Slams over his vaccination stance.

If we think about the price, it would definitely be humongous, both in terms of monetary and public image. But some brand sponsors have adopted the ‘glass half-full’ perspective. Lacoste, for example, tweeted the news, noting, “The exceptional athlete and men’s tennis world #1 shares common values with the French Crocodile: audacity, commitment and elegance.” Indeed, abiding by what one feels right, especially when the stakes are high, requires utmost level of courage. This incidence offers an opportunity to his sponsors to leverage upon the personality traits exhibited by Novak – audacity, conviction and clarity of thoughts.

However, everything might not be as sunny as it might appear. What about the intra- and inter-country brainstorming endeavours aiming to vaccinate the entire population? From international platforms like the WHO aiming to remove vaccine hesitancy to the ideology that “the virus cannot be removed anywhere if it is not removed everywhere” being accepted by all the countries, can Djokovic command the same brand value as he used to? Certainly, the sponsors are well aware of this fact. For instance, a Peugeot spokesperson recently declined to comment about Djokovic’s Australian Open situation.

While there are innumerable perspectives regarding Djokovic’s decision, the bottom line remains: the brands want associations to maintain their positive image, and in the middle of the highly-debated nature of vaccination in general, what stance Djokovic’s sponsors take will indicate a trend regarding the future course taken by brands sponsoring celebrities who get stuck in a similar turmoil. After all, that is what will drive their business.

Nitisha Thakwani

Engineer and MBA by training, writer by interest. Up for playing badminton even in the middle of the night. 'Curiosity did not kill the cat' are the words I live by.

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