Embattled tennis star Maria Sharapova regained her most important sponsor on Wednesday, hours after the International Tennis Federation suspended her for a failed drug test at the Australian Open last January.
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Nike Inc. (NKE) announced it has reinstated its agreement with Sharapova, thanks in part to the ITF’s determination that she did not intentionally use a banned substance. After a lengthy investigation, an ITF panel ruled that Sharapova would be suspended for two years – retroactive to January 26 – and would forfeit the prize money she won at the Australian Open.
“The ITF Tribunal has found that Maria did not intentionally break its rules,” Nike said in a statement obtained by FOXBUsiness.com. "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.”
Sharapova, 29, admitted last March to testing positive for meldonium, but said she had used the substance for medical purposes for more than 10 years. The ITF added meldonium to its list of prohibited substances on January 1, 2016, just days before the Australian Open began.
“The contravention of the anti-doping rules was not intentional as Ms. Sharapova did not appreciate that [medication] Mildronate contained a substance prohibited from 1 January 2016,” the ITF Tribunal said in its decision. “However she does bear sole responsibility for the contravention, and very significant fault, in failing to take any steps to check whether the continued use of this medicine was permissible.”
The failed test had an immediate impact on Sharapova’s business off the court. Key sponsors Nike and Porsche each suspended their endorsement deals with Sharapova last March while the ITF investigated the matter. The Nike deal is purportedly worth anywhere from $70 million to $100 million.
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Porsche did not respond to FOXBusiness.com’s request for comment on whether it would lift its suspension of Sharapova’s endorsement deal.
Evian, the water brand owned by French corporation Danone, and tennis brand Head have each maintained their partnerships with Sharapova throughout the ITF’s investigation. Another sponsor, Avon (AVP), declined to comment on the situation last March, but confirmed that she remained an active brand ambassador for its “Luck” fragrance.
Sharapova is the second highest-paid female athlete in the world as of June 2016, according to Forbes. She’s purportedly earned $21.9 million over the last 12 months, including $20 million from endorsements.