As Beijing’s censorship of tennis player Peng Shuai’s explosive sexual assault allegation against a former Chinese vice-premier reverberated around the world, the sport’s household names, from Roger Federer and Serena Williams to Novak Djokovic and Naomi Osaka, began speaking out.
On December 1, the Women’s Tennis Association announced it was suspending its tournaments in China. There has been silence, however, from major corporate sponsors, such as Adidas, which have worked with Peng for years, and the tennis and fashion communities are increasingly asking what role sportswear companies should play in such situations.
Peng has worked with Adidas for almost 15 years and was rarely seen on the court without the brand’s distinctive logo on her cap. She has appeared in numerous iterations of the brand’s Nothing is Impossible adverts, and in a 2008 ad campaign spoke about the surgery she had to correct a congenital heart issue as a child.
It would appear to make sense for the sportswear company to try to ascertain what has happened to its long-standing partner. If it is, it is doing so in private.
Peng and former Chinese vice-premier Zhang Gaoli, who the tennis player has accused of sexually assaulting her. Photo: AFP
“I think Adidas will be working behind the scenes to find out what’s going on and the company will have good contacts at the IOC [International Olympic Committee], which has spoken to her,” says Simon Rines, owner of IMR Sponsorship, an agency that advises sports sponsors.
“We don’t know what influence it might [bring to] bear through these and, for example, diplomatic channels. There is an argument to say that soft diplomacy might be the better initial approach, because no organisation likes to be told what to do and certainly China would not tolerate being dictated to by the West, so overt pressure could backfire in the initial stages.
“Ultimately, however, you would expect the company to be loyal to the person it has partnered with.”
The brand is stuck between a rock and a hard place. Fail to speak up and it will disappoint many non-Chinese consumers; say something publicly, and it could have serious problems in China.
“They do not want to risk upsetting the Chinese government, simple as that,” Rines says. “Consider if Peng Shuai was from a tiny nation, would sponsors speak out? Probably. At what point does a country have a critical market value that makes speaking out uncomfortable?” Wherever that point is, China has long since passed it.
Peng at the 2017 Wimbledon Championships. Photo: AFP
The dilemma that brands face is only heightened by the Beijing Winter Olympics, which takes place in early 2022. China is a huge market for these companies – and will grow even bigger over the Games – and they know that criticising the Chinese government, whether on the rights of the Uygur ethnic minority in Xinjiang or over censorship of Peng, could mean putting one of their most important markets at risk, both in terms of consumer popularity and the rights they have to operate there.
But with some Western countries now considering a diplomatic boycott of the Games, brands are equally aware that the rest of the world is starting to look at their involvement – or lack of it – with a critical eye.
Days after Peng made her accusations – in a post on Weibo, China’s answer to Twitter, that was swiftly removed – the IOC drew criticism for saying it was reassured about the tennis player’s safety. The IOC’s statement, which didn’t mention Shuai’s accusation, did little to quell the controversy – if anything, it inflamed it, with commentators claiming the IOC was now in the pocket of the Chinese government.
If you consider it from a purely business point of view, it is likely that most brands will keep quiet
Moments such as these can cause major problems for sportswear sponsors. When Simone Biles left Nike in the wake of the US gymnastics scandal, the brand endured a very damaging period. Tennis players aren’t hesitating to speak out. Is a brand like Adidas prepared for some of their champions to desert them over this case? The PR would be terrible.
So what would be more damaging for brands in the long run: taking a stance or staying silent?
“I think it varies between sponsors,” Rines says. “The higher-profile consumer brands such as Coca-Cola and Adidas will be under more pressure because they are part of people’s everyday lives, so in many ways their reputations are more likely to be at risk. Most people wouldn’t know that [American chemical company] Dow or [French IT service] Atos are Olympic sponsors, so in theory, there won’t be much heat on them if they don’t speak out.
“If you consider it from a purely business point of view, it is likely that most brands will keep quiet – the reputations of these brands won’t take an enormous hit, whereas their global market could if they upset China.”
Their best hope may be the knowledge that the Chinese government will not want this issue to overshadow the Games.
Adidas was contacted for comment by the South China Morning Post, but did not respond.Internet Explorer Channel Network