Serena Williams' meltdown: When should brands draw the line with bad behaviour?

US American tennis player Serena Williams (pictured) has come under the spotlight recently for her outburst at chair umpire Carlos Ramos during the 2018 US Open final. Williams was given a warning by Ramos for receiving assistance from her coach Patrick Mouratoglou. She was later docked a point for smashing her racquet in frustration for losing a game.

Thereafter, Williams went on a tirade against the chair umpire for falsely accusing her of cheating and called him a "thief" and a "liar". She has since been fined US$17,000 for code of conduct violations, multiple media reports stated.  Following the outburst, many have criticised Williams for her lack of class and called her a "bully" for calling out the umpire, while others have come to her defense.

Conversations also took a turn when many accused Williams of trying to steal the limelight from newly crowned champion Naomi Osaka. This was despite Williams pleading with the crowd to stop booing and celebrate Osaka's victory during the trophy presentation ceremony.

In fact, even the US Tennis Association's chairman of the board and president, Katrina Adams, said in a statement that what Williams did on the podium "showed a great deal of class and sportsmanship".

"This was Osaka's moment, and Williams wanted her to be able to enjoy it. That was a class move from a true champion," Adams said.

This, however, is not Williams' first meltdown. In the 2009 US Open semifinal, Williams stared down the line judge when she was called for a foot fault in her match against former Belgian professional tennis player Kim Clijsters. She was later fined US$2,000 and was placed on probation. She has also smashed her racquets on several occasions after either missing shots or struggling during matches.

But despite her behaviour, Williams has been a hot favourite with brands and marketers. Most recently, she was part of Nike's controversial campaign alongside former National Football League player Colin Kaepernick. Currently, the list of brands endorsed by Williams include Lincoln Motors, Nike, Beats by Dre, Gatorade, Audemars Piguet and Wilson Sporting Goods and her net worth is close to US$180 million.

While numerous "smokescreens" have been used to try and excuse Williams' behaviour, Simon Bell, managing director, Fitch Design, said this incident will unlikely cause her to lose many sponsors - unless one of the brands promote sportsmanship.

"The fact is, nothing done during the Women’s US Open final was illegal. Yes, it was all very headline grabbing, ugly to watch and disappointing for her opponent. However, Lance Armstrong, for example, lost his sponsors because his actions were illegal," Bell explained. He added that while brands that associate with Williams have a choice to make, it will be a "subjective" one.

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Under close scrutiny

On the other hand, Landor's president, SE Asia Pacific and Japan, Nick Foley, said continued bad behaviour from Williams will "most assuredly" lead to brands dropping her. He said that sports arenas are littered with athletes that believed "they were above others" in the game. Foley cited athletes such as Wayne Rooney, Manny Pacquiao and Nick Kyrgios as examples who lost sponsorship due to bad language or poor behaviour. He added:

Brands walk away when affiliation with a sports personality reflects badly on themselves, which is typically the last resort for marketers.

He added that while brands need to be relevant and have a point of distinction through sponsorship deals with athletes, it is also important for them to be credible with their target audiences and garner appropriate levels of esteem.

"Williams mouthing off at umpires, opponents and others feels like she needs to take a reality check.  I can’t see how any brand could benefit from such an association with her at the current time," he said.

Meanwhile, Lars Voedisch, founder of Precious Communications, said partners and brands will watch "very carefully" how Williams deals with the situation and whether she is sincere in her reflection and recovery.

"Her brand has taken some tremendous damage because of her 'unsportsmanlike' behaviour. Perhaps the shock was huge because she was portrayed as a super human, super mum and athlete of the century. She was possibly put too high on a pedestal," he said.

Voedisch added that to some extent, the people that played a part in creating Williams' personal brand have now contributed to damaging it. This was because if the newly crowned champion, Osaka, had been given the attention and respect she deserved from the audience and events leadership team, less emphasis would have been placed on Williams. Nonetheless, despite the damage this incident has caused "Brand Serena", Voedisch said it is still "very strong" as Williams has built it consistently over a period of time.