Ban Azarenka for her irresponsible ambush marketing

John Inverdale
ANDY played well. Novak played better. Just. The feather and the blister, which sounds like a Melbourne pub, may have been a factor, but equally may not. Without over-accentuating the positive, Murray was more at home in a grand slam final than he has ever appeared and he’ll undoubtedly be in a few more as the years roll by. And we are lucky to have him.

So let’s move on and, in a business newspaper, let’s talk business. Victoria Azarenka of Belarus won the ladies’ singles title in Australia, but in so doing antagonised the public, the sport’s authorities and the media on a grand slam-winning scale. Her conduct on court in both the semi-final and the final left a fair bit to be desired, but it was what happened after her triumph that may have the most long lasting impact, and tells you all you need to know about international sport in 2013.

She walked into the press conference and placed a can of Red Bull on the desk in front of her. When asked to remove it, she refused. Repeatedly. And those with the power to tell her to grow up and remove this blatant piece of ambush marketing of the event failed to do so. Whereupon she walked into successive television interviews, and did exactly the same.

Now this may strike some of you as funny, but I don’t suppose the main sponsors of the Aussie Open were amused, and it strikes at the heart of the financial realities of sport because these days sponsors make sport. They fund it and they help make its biggest stars extremely wealthy and the rest just about solvent. When the big fish start hijacking events for their own benefit then that model of the economics of sport is irrevocably holed below the water line.

For the moment Azarenka must be laughing. She will probably be fined a derisory amount by the WTA, but it will be a drop in the isotonic ocean compared to what the drinks company are paying her. Instead of being banned from the next grand slam event, which would make both her and the company think about the consequences, she will doubtless indulge in a similarly childish but personally beneficial display at the French Open.

But what happened in Melbourne is important because the reason there is huge wealth within sport is that all parties play by the rules.

Spineless governing bodies who allow their biggest stars to do what they want, not to mention irresponsible sponsors who seek to gain the tiniest advantage over their competitors, may all too soon realise that short-term gain for some could lead, when the big backers leave town, to long-term misery for a whole lot more.