Only 19% of adults, 18 and older, surveyed by Lightspeed Research say basketball is "too violent for my personal tastes." Only four sports-boxing (79%), hockey (73%), wrestling (67%) and extreme sports (57%)-were cited as too violent by more than half the respondents in the survey that Lightspeed, a unit of WPP Group, conducted last month for this Advertising Age Special Report.
The memory of the Nov. 19 melee between Indiana Pacers players and Detroit Pistons fans was revived last month with suspended Pacer Ron Artest's announced return to his team's practice court. Issues raised by pundits last year included the purported rising level of violence in college and pro sports. Related concerns include the violence inherent in modern sports, even without the extracurricular fisticuffs.
"Sports violence is getting a little bit worse, but may appear dramatically worse due to the amount and immediacy of media coverage," says David M. Carter, principal of Sports Business Group. "With so many other opportunities to cover athletes, [such misbehavior is] more in-your-face than it ever has been. It's hard to tell if the absolute level [of violence] is higher or just the degree of coverage."
Less than two months after the basketbrawl, only 26% of respondents to the Lightspeed survey said the current level of violence hurts the overall image of basketball and 18% said it hurts football.
"I've never seen an example of a consumers boycotting a sport due to violence," says Robert J. Thompson, founding director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. "Most interest groups care much less about violence than about a naked backside or a dirty word."
Marketers appear unfazed by sports-related violence as well, as Ed Erhardt, president of ESPN ABC sports customer marketing and sales, told TelevisionWeek, a sibling publication of Ad Age, after the basketbrawl incident in the National Basketball Association: "We haven't seen any defections. Nobody said, `We are pulling our business.' "
"I thought the NBA showed exceptional leadership with how they handled that incident," adds Malcolm Turner, a member of the executive management team at OnSport, a Raleigh, N.C., strategic sports marketing company. "They acted quickly and decisively. In some respects it strengthened their image." Mr. Turner says he's unaware of any sponsor distancing itself from the NBA over the incident.
However, marketers don't get a complete pass. In the Lightspeed survey, 57% say excessively violent sports can tarnish the image of advertisers associated with those sports.
"People understand that sports are reality TV in its purest form," Mr. Turner says. "It's unscripted live drama, and occasionally emotions boil over."
"Sport events are passionate environments," he says. "Whether you're talking about the NBA incident or a couple of parents mixing it up at their kids' soccer games."
It's no surprise that in the Lightspeed survey, boxing or wrestling usually tops the list when it comes to concerns about violence.
"Boxing and international soccer have always been seen as problematic to sponsor," says Mr. Carter. "Brewers and other traditional men's products have supported these sports in the past and still [do]. Despite the fan hooliganism sometimes associated with international soccer, [the sport] is so prominent globally that they are willing to take the risk."
At World Wrestling Entertainment, VP-Corporate Communications Gary Davis says: "When a pro wrestler runs out of the ring being chased, it's been scripted. That's something fans may expect might happen. In competitive sports, when players' actions break outside of the court or playing field, that is something unexpected."
Mr. Carter of Sports Business Group says that when the bigger spenders in sports think about a property, they evaluate it by folding in the risk. The return on sponsoring an individual star athlete may be far greater, but so is the risk if that athlete behaves badly.
Mr. Carter focuses on a broader picture. "There has been a pronounced erosion in sportsmanship across the board-various police blotter incidents, the Balco case [in which pro athletes allegedly took illegal performance-enhancing substances], player misbehavior on the court or on the field. It's the cumulative impact that begins to erode the situation for marketers."