PR Week – what next for the team formerly known as 'Sky'?

Professional cycling has an image problem. The sport appears to be in a perennial flux of doping scandals and promises to clean up, only for another high-profile name to fall foul of the rules or, at least, the ethics.

When Team Sky formed in 2009, a key pledge was that they would do it differently and earn success cleanly.

Under the guidance of David Brailsford, the team enjoyed rapid success. In their third season, Bradley Wiggins captured the greatest prize in the sport, the Tour de France.

Since that inaugural win, Team Sky has won every Tour de France bar one, and also picked up wins in the other grand tours – the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a Espana – to boot, plus their cyclists have won a haul of other events, including Olympic Games medals.

However, a 'grey cloud' has emerged over Team Sky’s operations since allegations surfaced that two of its Tour de France winning cyclists, Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome, had used performance-enhancing drugs.

Wiggins case did not contravene the World Anti-Doping Agency’s code, although it was questioned as being unethical, while Froome successfully defended the allegations in a legal battle with cycling’s governing body, the UCI.

When Sky suddenly announced it would end its sponsorship of British cycling this season, it left the world’s top-ranked team without a title sponsor at a difficult juncture.

It is believed that Sky contributed about €30m each season, which is comfortably the most of any team and three times as much as some rivals it competes with.

But, at a time when brands are carefully considering the social purpose of their marketing investments, could the team’s recent problems with fresh allegations of doping taint their allure to new sponsors?

A hard sell?

Experts who specialise in securing sports sponsorship deals are divided about how severely recent scandals have tarnished the sport and unsure who could replace Sky, but agree it won’t be an easy sell.

Calacus PR managing director David Alexander, who has previously with British Cycling and Brian Cookson, the former president of British Cycling and the UCI, told PRWeek allegations linked to the team will have tarnished its reputation to a degree, particularly as the team had set itself up to such high ethical standards to begin with.

"The problem with any brand or organisation who set themselves up to be whiter than white and standard bearers for a sport so long tainted by doping is that they have to exceed those standards or they are there to be shot at," he said, adding that we will find out more about the legitimacy of allegations when a tribunal into Dr Richard Freeman concludes in a few weeks’ time.

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