In an age when confidential information is as confidential as the click of a mouse, barely a day goes by when a sports fan's trust isn't betrayed by a freshly-leaked report about a record-breaking Major League Baseball player's steroid use. The Boston Red Sox's David Ortiz is the latest slugger to find himself dinged by the publication of a steroid-positive test result. Between the explosion of performance-enhancing drugs and the media market value of radioactive test results, however old, we are surely in for more.
From Mark McGwire to Barry Bonds and the Mitchell Report, disclosures about steroid use in baseball inevitably come equipped with chin-scratching - and apocalyptic - debates about the taint-fueled demise of the Game.
Such doom-and-gloom prophesies are the price of admission for punditry, but, from a crisis management perspective, such chatter mistakes legitimate concerns about the integrity of the sport for the viability of baseball as a business. Put bluntly, it will be baseball's commercial appeal that determines its future, and that future looks pretty bright despite all the sound and fury. Put even more bluntly, the antidote to scandal is performance. Mostly.
• In 2001, at the height of Barry Bonds' suspicious reign, home-game attendance in San Francisco was over full-capacity, and Bonds' Giants were the sixth highest draw on the road. In 2007, Bonds' last year, home and road attendance numbers were both in the top five. Contrast this with 2008, the first year Bonds was not playing for the Giants, where home attendance dropped sharply from third to tenth, while their draw on the road plummeted from fifth to nineteenth.
• Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire's home run-slamming ways had similar affects on attendance as Bonds'. In 2004, Sosa's final season with the Chicago Cubs, home games at Wrigley Field were 98.9% full, at the top of the league. Sosa's Cubs were also second in drawing opposing fans to watch at away games, just ahead Bonds' Giants. In 2002, the year after McGwire's retirement, his St. Louis Cardinals saw a 6.2% decline in home and road attendance capacity percentages, and over 100,000 fewer fans showed up to home games compared to 2001.
• From 1997 to 1998, the year of the McGwire and Sosa home run battle, attendance in the MLB climbed nearly 7.5 million fans from the prior year. The Cardinals alone enjoyed an increase over 600,000 fans from '97 to '98. The McGwire-Sosa duel had an effect on away parks in 1998 too, the Milwaukee Brewers reporting that the team's last five home games were against the Cardinals and the Cubs, racking up an additional 250,000 fans for those five games.
To be sure, compromised integrity, Congressional investigations, anemic denials and finessed apologies have presented problems for the League, but not fatal crises because the only thing worse than defrauding fans is failing to entertain them.
Baseball survives -- and thrives -- because fans want to see quasi-mutant athletes slamming home runs from Baltimore to Brazil, provided that steroid use as a possible contributor to these mega-hits isn't thrown right in their faces. Throughout the Mutant Age, fans have actively speculated about steroids, but the lack of proof gave permission to the spectacle.
The key has been to balance big performances with modest remedies, fixes that don't overestimate the true level of concern in the marketplace. Indeed, sometimes cautious, seemingly uninspired moves are just what the spin doctor ordered.
While big hitters were hitting big, the League took measured actions to demonstrate a basic level of respect for its fans by investigating and disciplining wayward players through firm (as compared to, well, zero) punishments. The first time a player tests positive for steroids, he's whacked with a 50 game suspension with no pay. The second offense knocks him out for 100 games without pay. A third positive test bans him from the game for life.
Players can bounce back from suspensions if they perform. The Los Angeles Dodgers' Manny Ramirez was recently banned 50 games and forfeited more than $7 million for his sin, but hit a game-winning grand slam right after his return. An Orange County Register headline aptly read "Manny's Slam Makes Fans Forget His Cheating Heart," which pretty much tells the whole story.
Blatant disregard for the integrity of the Game would surely erode the MLB's brand in the long run, but the League's proportional response will serve it well. Provided, of course, that the monster hits continue unabated.
Stuart Dezenhall contributed to this blog post.
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