In responding to the sport’s sign-stealing scandal, Major League Baseball and the Houston Astros have dropped the ball on every rule in the crisis playbook.
With a series of poorly executed press conferences, interviews and decisions, the commissioner’s office and the baseball club have only prolonged the crisis and prompted more outrage from across the sports world.
“All the parties involved ignored the key tenets of communications issue management, which are to accept responsibility, express remorse and move on,” says Shawn McBride, EVP of sports at Ketchum. “Instead, we’ve seen stakeholders exhibit a lack of contrition at best and indigence at worst. It is mind-boggling, given there is no shortage of examples of how to manage issues like this in professional sports, including baseball with the steroid scandal of the 2000s.”
Trying to explain the baseball world’s wild misplay of the crisis, Red Havas global CEO James Wright says, “Either they have been getting bad advice or have refused good advice. MLB has pushed blame around and hasn’t owned an issue that is clearly theirs, possibly due to their arrogance and corporate culture.”
“Surely they would have taken a black eye back then rather than the car crash it has become now?” he asks hypothetically.
In November, days after the Houston Astros lost the World Series to the Washington Nationals, The Athletic broke the story that the American League ball club used video to decode other team’s hand signals. The article quoted current Oakland Athletics and former Astros starting pitcher Mike Fiers, who emerged as the scandal’s whistleblower.
Following an internal investigation, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred fined the Astros $5 million and stripped them of first- and second-round picks in the next two MLB drafts. Astros owner Jim Crane, who fired the team’s manager and general manager, was exonerated of responsibility.
Flanked by Astros stars Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman at a February press conference, Crane then exonerated himself, saying, “I don’t think I should be held accountable.” He also claimed that stealing signs “didn’t impact the game,” a statement with which the media had a field day. Crane has offered no apology to rival teams including the Los Angeles Dodgers, which the Astros defeated in the 2017 World Series.
Gene Dias, VP of communications for the Astros, who plays a significant role in the club’s crisis management, according to MLB’s website, declined comment, including about whether the Astros are working with PR agencies.
Free for all
MLB gave Astros players immunity from punishment in exchange for testimony, despite most accounts describing the cheating scheme as being player-led. However, by making that deal, MLB created a situation in which players are publicly expressing their outrage with other players. That has only stoked the crisis and negative media coverage further.
“Historically, fans have been used to seeing issues between players and management, but now you have players lashing out at other players,” McBride says. “Even some of the low-key personalities of the game are speaking up and making some very strong, critical statements, to the point the commissioner’s office is taking shots left and right on the manner in which they have handled the investigation.”
New York Yankees star outfielder Aaron Judge said of the Astros’ 2017 World Series title, “I just don’t think it holds any value for me. You cheated and you didn’t earn it.” Nick Markakis of the Atlanta Braves took it a bit further, saying, “Every single guy over there needs a beating.” Even big-name athletes from other sports, such as LeBron James, have tweeted about it.
That element of the snowballing story led Manfred to warn pitchers on other teams not to seek retribution against Astros players with beanballs.
Meanwhile, some big baseball names, such as Boston Red Sox legend David Ortiz, have aimed their ire at whistleblower Fiers, characterizing him as a snitch.
The player-immunity agreement robbed professional baseball of the opportunity to have a single voice on the issue. It also threatens to keep sign-stealing as a storyline throughout the 2020 season, experts say.
“The Astros would have hoped when time came to play ball, the scandal would have been in the rear-view mirror, and a media that had been in overdrive on the crisis would turn to covering games,” says McBride. “The reality is every time the Astros play in the first half of the season, the coverage is going to be about the reaction from their competitors.”
Brandy Runyan, CEO of Black Diamond PR & Sport Management Firm in Texas, says the danger of cheating scandals over the long-term is turning sports into a kind of “structured reality.” From performance-enhancing drugs in virtually every sport to tampering with equipment, as was the case in DeflateGate in the NFL, and match-fixing in pro tennis and esports, scandals are making sports look like a sordid business.
“Cheating creates an unfair playing field, and if it’s not an authentic battle, it’s just entertainment and no longer sport,” she says. “From a spectator perspective, we are still very married to the idea of purity in sport. True competitive sport has always been, and will always be, about fighting to see who is the best of the best.”
TV executives contend that the bad publicity could actually benefit sponsors, saying viewers will tune in to see how the animosity might boil over onto the field.
PR pros disagree, especially when it comes to family friendly brands. Some point out that several Little League teams across the country, which often name their teams after MLB counterparts, have suspended the Astros name.
“This crisis sends a bad message of effectively, ‘We don’t take ownership of cheating.’ If you’re a brand trying to attract families and kids, I don’t know how you’d want to be attached to the Astros right now,” says Wright. “There is too much risk inherent in it.”
Sponsors of the Astros include Minute Maid, supermarket H-E-B and Chick-fil-A, which did respond to requests for comment.
Wright says there is no doubt that Astros sponsors have morality clauses in their contracts that would allow themselves to cut ties if their values aren’t shared.
“What impact the crisis will have on sponsorship dollars remains to be seen, but I guarantee conversations are happening in C-level boardrooms right now on whether this is a relationship they want to continue,” he says.