Hours after the International Tennis Federation (ITF) banned Maria Sharapova for two years after she tested positive for Meldonium, Nike said it will continue to sponsor the tennis star.
“The ITF Tribunal has found that Maria did not intentionally break its rules,” Nike said in a statement. “Maria has always made her position clear, has apologized for her mistake and is now appealing the length of the ban. Based on the decision of the ITF and their factual findings, we hope to see Maria back on court and will continue to partner with her.”
Nike is one of Sharapova’s biggest sponsors. It has had a relationship with her since she beat Serena Williams to win Wimbledon as a 17-year-old in 2004. In 2010, the company signed her to an eight-year agreement worth between an estimated $70 million and $100 million, depending on sales and her performance on the court. It was reported to be Nike’s biggest deal ever for a female athlete.
It’s not clear how Sharapova’s ban will affect those earnings. Nike declined to comment.
For 11 straight years Sharapova was the world’s highest-paid female athlete; Williams overtook her this year. After Sharapova first tested positive for the drug in March, other sponsors, including Porsche and TAG Heuer, distanced themselves from her.
What Sharapova did and didn’t know about the ITF’s ban on Meldonium, or mildronate, which increases blood circulation and improves endurance, has been at the center of the ITF’s investigation. In its ruling, it said: “It may be that she genuinely believed that mildronate had some general beneficial effect on her health but the manner in which the medication was taken, its concealment from the anti-doping authorities, her failure to disclose it even to her own team, and the lack of any medical justification must inevitably lead to the conclusion that she took mildronate for the purpose of enhancing her performance.”
Sharapova responded in a statement posted to her Facebook page. “While the tribunal concluded correctly that I did not intentionally violate the anti-doping rules, I cannot accept an unfairly harsh two-year suspension,” it said. She added that she will immediately appeal her suspension.