Celebrate This?

Drug Allegations Taint MLB's Chance to Promote Epic Home-Run Chase

By Published on .

NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- The newest steroid scandal about San Francisco Giants star Barry Bonds presents a painful dilemma for Major League Baseball: How do you celebrate someone who is widely believed to have cheated?

As Mr. Bonds approaches what is arguably the greatest record in all of sports -- Hank Aaron's 755 career home runs -- he does so with a tainted legacy. Last year Mr. Bonds said he unknowingly took two forms of steroids. Now comes "Game of Shadows," a new book due out March 27 and excerpted in Sports Illustrated last week that alleges Mr. Bonds used a vast array of drugs and steroids since 1998.

In normal circumstances the MLB would, experts say, have enjoyed a season-long financial bonanza based on the home run chase, with memorabilia and apparel sold to fans and marketing programs around the chase aimed at garnering more attention and viewers for the sport. (The National Basketball Association rushed special Kobe Bryant jerseys into its NBA Store less than 48 hours after Mr. Bryant scored 81 points in a game last month.)

But the MLB is unlikely to want to be seen to be making too much of Mr. Bonds' achievements, and what could have been a celebration of a march to history will likely end up being a slow crawl through negative public perception and an internal ethical challenge for the MLB and television partners Fox and ESPN.

"The cloud hanging over him casts a long shadow on what could have been a big celebration," said Don Hinchey, VP of Denver-based sports marketing firm The Bonham Group.

Mr. Bonds has 708 career home runs. He will likely pass the legendary Babe Ruth's 714 in April. He has a good chance of hitting the 48 he needs to surpass Mr. Aaron late this year. Discounting the 2005 season, when he played in only 14 games due to a knee injury, Mr. Bonds has averaged 51 home runs in his last five full years. He hit 73 home runs in 2001, the single-season record.

"It's an enormous dilemma," said Marc Ganis, president of Chicago-based SportsCorp. "How, in good faith, do you market a person who has been accused of effectively cheating the game and cheating the fans and having an improper advantage?"

Major League Baseball did not respond to calls by press time.

Sports marketing expert Brandon Steiner believes it is doubtful Mr. Bonds will reach Mr. Aaron's mark this season, so he suspects MLB will be spared such a quandary. "One of the great things about baseball is, virtually every team has at least one or two major stars that are easily identifiable," he said. "There are a lot of other good things going on in baseball that the league can focus on."

Benefits of scandal
But the Bonds issue may turn out to be a boon for the TV networks, Mr. Ganis said. "Frankly, I think the controversy will help them. It tends to generate more viewers."

"We have not yet discussed the topic with MLB," said a Fox spokesman, "so until we do it would be premature to speculate on what we might do."

ESPN plans to forge ahead with its reality series on Mr. Bonds, and a spokeswoman said, "From a marketing perspective, we'll let viewers know when and where to find Barry Bonds on our air as a service to our fans, as you would expect."

Even before steroid allegations surfaced, Mr. Bonds had a surly reputation that limited his endorsement opportunities. He has three deals, all of which remain intact but all of which are small in scope -- New Era and Majestic, which make baseball caps and apparel, and Topps Baseball Cards.

In this article:
Most Popular