SINGAPORE - German luxury fashion brand Hugo Boss says its support for Joseph Schooling remains "strong" despite revelations that the national swimmer has confessed to consuming cannabis.
Schooling, 27, became the brand's first Singaporean ambassador in 2018.
Responding to queries from The Straits Times, managing director of Hugo Boss South-east Asia Steven Lam said on Wednesday (Aug 31) that "our partnership and support for Joseph remains strong and unwavered".
He added: "Joseph (Schooling) has made a mistake but what's important is that he has taken ownership of it.
"Over the years, he has always been a positive influence in and out of the pool. He has inspired many kids to believe in themselves, to work hard and to chase their dreams.
"We have taught future generations that it is okay to make mistakes, to own up, but you will have to take responsibility and more importantly, fix it. It will be a long road ahead for Joseph but we believe he will now show us how he will make good his promise to rebuild the trust with the people who believe in him."
Hugo Boss added that its partnership with Schooling is a mix of cash and kind.
Sport Singapore had on Tuesday (Aug 30) revealed that the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) had investigated Schooling and fellow national swimmer Amanda Lim, 29, for possible offences related to the consumption of cannabis. It added that Schooling, whose urine tests for controlled drugs returned negative, was referred to the Ministry of Defence as he is currently undergoing national service.
Mindef has placed him on an SAF-supervised urine test regime as part of the treatment and rehabilitation process. He was also issued a formal letter of warning.
More significantly, however, Mindef said he would no longer be eligible for leave or disruption to train or compete while in NS. This means he will likely miss next year's SEA Games in Cambodia as well as the Asian Games in Hangzhou.
The 2016 Olympic 100m butterfly gold medallist apologised for his actions, saying: "I made a mistake and I'm responsible for what I've done. I will make amends and right what is wrong. I won't let you down again."
Following Schooling's historic victory in the 100m butterfly at the 2016 Olympics, sponsors lined up to court him, with brands such as Hugo Boss, probiotic drink Yakult and imaging and optical products manufacturer Canon, watch maker TAG Heuer and Milo inking deals with the swimmer. ST understands that most of the deals were valued at at least six figures each.
Nestle’s contract ended in 2020 while TAG Heuer and Canon’s tie-up concluded last year. Yakult did not respond to queries from ST.
In 2018, Toyota distributor Borneo Motors struck a three-year deal with Schooling to be its brand ambassador. Over the years, Schooling was first given a Toyota RAV4, a compact SUV retailing at around $142,000, a 2019 RAV4 that cost around $150,000 to $160,000 and eventually a Toyota Supra that was estimated to cost between $200,000 and $300,000.
All three cars bore the number plates bearing the figures 5039 - the time of Schooling's 50.39-second feat in the 100m butterfly final in Rio.
Toyota’s sponsorship with Schooling ended in June.
His three-year deal with DBS Bank which was inked in 2018 and ended before Schooling's enlistment in January, netted him a seven-figure sum, which put him in a select group of local athletes who have crossed the million-dollar mark in career earnings, including footballer Fandi Ahmad, golfer Mardan Mamat, and table tennis players Li Jiawei and Feng Tianwei.
Ball in Schooling's court
Marketing experts that ST spoke to said that what sponsors do following the drug revelations will depend on what Schooling does in the aftermath and how Singaporeans react.
Dr Seshan Ramaswami, associate professor of marketing education at the Singapore Management University, felt that the incident's impact on the Schooling brand is likely temporary.
He said: "Thus far, he has shown contrition, and explained that he gave in to the temptation in a moment of high stress. He is still young, and given his outstanding sporting accomplishments, which are unique in Singapore's sporting history, the public at large will likely forgive this trespass.
"That is the key to what sponsors do - their understanding of what they think the average Singaporean's reaction would be."
However, Schooling's prolonged absence from the competitive stage - he will likely be unable to represent Singapore in competitive events until his NS ends in early 2024 - could prove more damaging. That is because active athletes stay in the news, which is of huge benefit to sponsors given the amount of media exposure they get. These brands also stay in the mind of consumers automatically. That, more than just his drug use, will be on sponsors' minds.
"After his return to sports, what will continue to making him attractive to sponsors is his continuing to be a serious contestant in regional and global swimming competitions," said Dr Ramaswami. "If he trains hard and does well, this incident will be just a little blip in his sponsorship career."
James Walton, sports business group leader for Deloitte South-east Asia hopes that the sponsors will stand by Schooling though he acknowledged the challenges for some.
He said: "It may be easier for the more adult-focused sponsors like Hugo Boss rather than a family-oriented one. I hope they recognise people do make mistakes and that he was going through a lot of challenges in the last year and he has owned up, confessed and apologised."
Phelps & Woods
Several of sport's biggest stars have survived scandals that could have derailed their careers and bank balances.
Schooling's idol, American swimmer Michael Phelps, pleaded guilty to a drunken driving charge in 2004, and was pictured smoking a marijuana pipe barely a year after the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where he captured a record eight gold medals.
On both occasions, he issued a public apology. He lost a major sponsorship deal with Kellogg. But in the following years, regained them and added Mazda and Subway, among others, to his endorsement portfolio.
Golf icon Tiger Woods was engulfed in an infamous sex scandal in 2009 following a car crash. Lurid headlines about a string of extramarital affairs followed and he lost a slew of endorsement deals, including two of his biggest backers, Gatorade and AT&T. Business Insider estimated the loss at about US$22 million (S$30.71 million).
But one company that backed him to the hilt was Nike.
Woods issued a mea culpa, took a break from the sport but remained among the most marketable athletes with Forbes noting that even after the incident, he remained at No. 1 on its highest-paid athletes list up till 2012.
Walton believes that "this incident will not change his (Schooling's) sporting legacy".
"Someone like Tiger Woods is still remembered as a golf icon despite what happened," he said. "The bigger challenge will be whether Schooling comes back into swimming. It will be easier for his brand to be rehabilitated if he continues swimming and goes to another major Games and wins medals.
"That would be a story of redemption. There will definitely always be a brand for Joseph because he will always be our first Olympic gold-medal winner."