Money at Play·Analysis

Maria Sharapova: Controversy sells — fairness does not

As Maria Sharapova returns to tennis after serving a 15-month doping ban for taking meldonium, the world is reminded that all is not fair in sport and sometimes, cheaters will prosper.

Nothing spikes a sport’s bottom line like a controversial superstar

With every controversial Maria Sharapova headline, the sport of tennis becomes more valuable. (Michael Probst/Associated Press) (Michael Probst/Associated Press)

As Maria Sharapova returns to tennis after serving a 15-month doping ban for taking meldonium, the world is reminded that all is not fair in sport and sometimes, cheaters will prosper.

Sharapova returned to the WTA Wednesday, hours after her doping suspension was lifted. For weeks, her publicity team has worked to paint the tennis superstar as the victim (her upcoming autobiography is tauntingly titled Unstoppable). But despite their best efforts, her competitors are calling foul. 

Her competitors have a point. Regardless of if her infraction was intentional, every athlete knows the cardinal rule of sport: you are one hundred per cent responsible for everything that goes in your body. It is your job. That job includes being accountable to WADA and ensuring compliance with their banned substance list. No exceptions, no excuses. 

But what happens after an athlete has paid their dues? Most would have to start from the bottom and prove themselves with results. In tennis, that would entail playing lesser tournaments to establish a world ranking. But those rules won't apply to the five-time Grand Slam Champion Sharapova.

Why? Well, fairness just doesn't apply equally in sport.

Sadly, Sharapova is the WTA's biggest asset. Nothing garners attention to a sport like a controversial superstar. America's (in this case, Russian) sweetheart turned doping villain. Her wild-card entry into top tournaments is making headlines, and her special treatment has competitors like Eugenie Bouchard speaking out publicly in disgust.

Sharapova will be granted every opportunity to rise from the ashes. The spotlight on her has never been brighter. It has people talking about women's tennis outside of a major championship. And with every headline, Sharapova becomes more valuable to her sport.

It's a playbook we've seen before. With Sharapova's lack of contrition and willingness to maintain she was wronged by the system, it's reminiscent of Major League Baseball during the Alex Rodriguez doping saga. A-rod proved sporting villains sell tickets and bring broadcast viewers just as easily as sporting hero's do.  Like A-Rod, Sharapova may see her fans become her foes, hoping for a chance to hold her accountable in the court of public opinion.

But as long as athletes like A-Rod and Sharapova sell, there is no incentive for their respective sports to create policies and procedures to keep them from the game once they have paid their doping dues. Controversy sells, fairness does not. 

Like many others, I will tune into the Porsche Grand Prix in Stuttgart, Germany for the first time.  It will be to watch Maria Sharapova. In doing so, I am part of the problem. Sadly, controversy and drama will always be more entertaining than fairness.


Deidra Dionne is Director, Business Affairs at Rogers Media. Her unique outlook on the business of sport stems from her experience as a two-time Olympian and Olympic medallist in freestyle skiing aerials, and from her education and experience as a lawyer in the sport and entertainment industry.


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