Will Sponsors Use Their Clout to Clean Up Sports?

Sports marketing is big business – more than $12 billion in sports-related advertising and another $34 billion on global sports sponsorships last year – and that’s still with less than 5% of sports-related advertising devoted to Internet media. It’s a safe bet that those numbers will continue to grow rapidly. Which makes it all the more surprising that sponsors aren’t showing more indignance over the recent stench – from dogfighting to doping, from point shaving to performance enhancement – emanating from the professional sports ranks. Where is the outrage?

Maybe I’m just naive. After all, sponsors of Major League Baseball certainly benefited from the steroid-charged, record-setting exploits of Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa in the late 1990’s, which pulled baseball back from a creeping irrelevance among fans. Similarly, NFL sponsors have basked in their affiliation with the sport that displaced baseball as America’s pastime. The NFL grew fat in the 1970s and ’80s with the help of players who would ingest just about anything for an edge. (North Dallas Forty is one of my favorite sports books/movies.) The league has since cleaned up its act, at least somewhat, and new Commissioner Roger Goodell, well aware of the massive marketing machine he inherited from Paul Tagliabue, is cracking down on all types of miscreant behavior to shine up the league’s suddenly tarnished image.

Like anything else, with sports and sports marketing you have to follow the money. Owners increase their payrolls to create winning teams and draw fans. Fans drive TV ratings, which lead to lucrative broadcast contracts. Sponsors jump on board to ride the wave and sidle up to the fan (customer) base. The players beat each others’ brains in and do all kinds of suspect things to their bodies to land a big contract. Once they do, many of them can’t handle the fame and fortune and squander it all away on gambling or drugs or their entourages.

At some point, the sponsors will have had enough. We’ve seen a few recent breaking-point examples: Swiss bike maker BMC Trading AG pulled its Tour de France sponsorship, and others such as Deutsche Telekom are making similar noises following this year’s disaster of a race, in which several riders were kicked out for blood doping.  Nike, Reebok and Rawlings have dumped Michael Vick (temporarily at least) following the QB’s high-profile indictment on dogfighting charges. Brands have kept a safe distance from alleged steroid cheat Barry Bonds’ pursuit of the home run record. No priceless MasterCard moments for that chase.

Sponsors really could put the screws to the professional sports to clean up their respective acts; the threat of billions in lost revenue opportunities might even get someone as calcified as Bud Selig to take more aggressive actions to root out the cheats. But it’s more likely that the hypocrisy will continue. As long as the sponsors get whatever they perceive as a proper return on their investments, and as long as fans keep filling the seats, we’ll keep seeing plenty of news about indictments and drug scandals mixed in with the box scores.

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