Sports themselves, not star players, key to restoring leagues' reputations

Major League Baseball's crackdown on player doping should be accompanied by consumer-outreach campaigns for the sport to completely restore its past lustre, say marketing experts.

Major League Baseball's crackdown on player doping should be accompanied by consumer-outreach campaigns for the sport to completely restore its past lustre, say reputation and sports marketing experts.

On Monday, following an investigation into the now-closed Biogenesis anti-aging clinic in Miami, the league suspended 13 players, most notably superstar Alex Rodriguez. The New York Yankees third baseman said he plans to appeal the decision, which would see him banned from the sport for more than 200 games.

Brad Wilks, MD for the Midwest at MSLGroup, says “the first order of business in a situation like this is to address the problem, which the league has done.”

But given that doping seems to be an institutional problem – baseball's “steroid era” is a common phrase in media stories – he contends that “longer-term, they'll need to think about how they can rebuild credibility to stakeholders, particularly to the general public.”

One way for America's pastime to do that is to lead educational campaigns, particularly targeted at young fans, about the pitfalls of taking performance-enhancing drugs, says Wilks.

“Professional athletes are iconic heroes to young people. When they see these athletes rewarded for this kind of behavior, they don't always see the downside,” he adds. “There is an opportunity for the league to educate people and say, ‘look, this is a moral issue as well as a health issue.'”

Harlan Loeb, global chair of crisis and risk at Edelman, agrees that fostering partnerships could be a positive move for the league, once the media storm calms.

“I think it would be a wonderful thing to do as long as it is in permission with organizations whose core mission and expertise is in the area of dietary supplements and other things young athletes might be taking,” says Loeb. “MLB shouldn't get into being spokespeople on this issue but lend its resources and stature.”

He adds that such a move would also send a strong message to the amateur sports community that drug-taking is a barrier to entry into professional sports.

Move away from the star system
PR pros specializing in sports note that the large sums of money made by professionals athletes and the changed media environment have led to sharper focus on star players, with in-depth coverage of their salaries, lifestyles, and other topics once on the periphery of sports reporting.

In addition to social media, where star players are followed like celebrities, mainstream sports media has also embraced tabloid journalism, contends Steve Webster, president and CEO of sports and entertainment PR firm CMPR.

“We work with and love ESPN, but it is the king of making sure that there is a scandal [and that] ESPN is the first outlet to break it,” he says. “That is what helps get viewers and ratings.”

Baseball is hardly the only professional sport dealing with negative coverage of its stars. More than two-dozen National Football League players have been arrested since Super Bowl XLVII in February, including former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez, who was charged with murder in June.

Experts say that professional sports leagues and their individual teams would benefit from emphasizing their brands and sports – in the case of baseball, as America's favorite pastime –  rather than marquee players.

David Johnson, CEO of Strategic Vision, says while the scandals have not hurt TV ratings in the short term, they do not endear the leagues to corporate sponsors, noting that “what sells to sponsors is popularity and apple-pie wholesomeness.”

“Teams need to profile players who are coming up, living out their dreams through hard work – almost like a rags-to-riches story – because that's what any of these sports used to be about,” he says. “Leagues also need to work with owners and other key personnel and get them out in the stands with fans, a selling point that used to help make the game accessible.”

Johnson says doing this would connect fans to sports on an emotional level, noting that many believe professional leagues are completely corporate-driven enterprises.

Sponsor impact
Pat Morrissey, director of product and brand communications at General Motors, says that professionals sports sponsorships is a very important communications strategy of the automaker's pillar brands. Chevrolet is a sponsor of MLB; GMC of the NFL; Buick of the NCAA, and Cadillac is a title sponsor of the World Golf Championship.

Morrissey declined to talk specifically about MLB's handling of the Biogenesis scandal. However, he explains that GM's strategy is to use sponsorships to stage experiential events at games and connect its products with fans. “The PR department also extends activation into communities with our dealers by sponsoring [Little League Baseball],” Morrissey adds.

GM does not build its communications strategies around individual players. In fact, Morrissey says GM has no sponsorship agreements with professional athletes.

In addition to Chevrolet, other official sponsors of MLB properties include Anheuser-Busch, Bank of America, Frito-Lay, Gatorade, Kellogg's, Nike, and Taco Bell. Several were contacted by PRWeek, but all declined to comment or did not return calls.

Ann Wool, partner and MD of Ketchum Sports & Entertainment, whose clients include official MLB sponsor Gillette, says brands are savvy to the risks of sponsorship. When a particular athlete is accused of wrongdoing, “pending the nature of the charges, then brands often need to make tough decisions to sever the relationship,” she says.

However, sponsorship of an entire league has fewer risks, Wool contends.

“We haven't seen lasting effects to the companies that support the sports because fans are savvy enough to separate the actions of a few from the overall team or sport and the brands that support what they love,” she says. “The beauty of team-sports fans is that while they love certain individual athletes, they also tend to have deep, long-standing affiliations with the actual team.”

An MLB representative could not be immediately reached for comment.

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