Lance sponsors stay put

Lance Armstrong dropped his fight against doping charges on Thursday, which means he will be stripped of his seven Tour de France titles. But his loyal sponsors are not stripping him of their support.

Nike stood by Armstrong, much as it stood by Tiger Woods after revelations about his extramarital affairs in late 2009.

"Lance has stated his innocence and has been unwavering on this position," said Mary Remuzzi, a spokeswoman for the sportswear company.

Anheuser-Busch InBev, for whom Armstrong has starred in Michelob Ultra commercials, said nothing would change in its relationship with him, which began in 2009 with a three-year contract. "He has inspired millions with his athletic achievement and his commitment to helping cancer survivors and their families," Paul Chibe, the company's vice president for the US marketing, said in a statement.

At Honey Stinger, which makes energy gels, chews and bars, Armstrong's refusal to continue to fight the doping accusations by the US Anti-Doping Agency is of no consequence.

"We knew he was semi-controversial from the start," Bill Gamber, the president of the company, said in a telephone interview from Steamboat Springs, Colo. "Bike racing for years has had a lot of controversy, and we're a small company built around endurance sports and he's kind of the icon."

One reason for Honey Stinger's unchanging embrace of Armstrong is that he owns a piece of it, promotes its products, meets with its retailers and helps the company build its brand. Last week he ran a marathon sponsored by the company. "He gives his life to bike racing and to cancer survivors," Gamber said.

Armstrong's corporate ties appear primarily to benefit his 15-year-old foundation, which had $43 million in revenue in 2011, down from $47 million in 2010, according to its audited statements.

While contributions to the foundation rose by 9 per cent to $15.9 million, "unconditional promises to give" fell from nearly $8.2 million to $4.9 million in that time period.

Sandra Miniutti, vice president for marketing of Charity Navigator, which evaluates charities, said, "If all contributions are down ' not just promises ' it's a strong indication that things are off."

The foundation's sponsors and partners include Nike, which developed the yellow Livestrong bracelet that has raised tens of millions of dollars for the charity, and started a line of Livestrong apparel; Radio Shack; Oakley, a maker of sunglasses; Trek, a bicycle manufacturer; Michelob Ultra; and American Century Investments.

Chris Doyle, a spokesman for American Century, said the firm's founder, James Stowers, and his wife, Virginia, are cancer survivors; nearly half of the company's profits are ploughed into research into diseases like cancer.

Doyle said the antidoping agency "can sanction Armstrong but no one can take away what he's done for the 28 million people living with cancer." He added, "He's led a movement that transcends any individual."

American Century's commitment to Armstrong includes a Livestrong portfolio of funds.

The success of Armstrong's cancer-fighting foundation has, for now, shielded sponsors from dropping him as some did with Woods, whose infidelities while an active golfer appear to have struck corporate America as worse than Armstrong's refusal to further contest charges that he said were part of an "unconstitutional witch hunt."

Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon, said: "Whether or not his cycling success was pharmaceutically-engineered, Lance has used his fame for so much good. I think a large segment of consumers still finds that a bigger piece of his brand equity, and it's why companies will still support him."

Oakley's support for Armstrong came with a clear rebuke of the anti-doping agency. The company said that it "supports its athletes who respect and honour the ethics of sports until proven otherwise."

Another sponsor, FRS, a maker of energy drinks, linked its corporate ethic to the foundation's when it voiced its continued support for Armstrong.