Commentary

Forget The Players, Viewers And Advertisers: Score One For The Ref

In NBA games, lots of points are scored. But if a rogue referee had his way, he'd make some points too -- all to help his gambling bets.

Fixing NBA games would send the sport into major foul trouble -- with viewers and certainly with advertisers. Now, sport entertainment can contend with that -- save pro wrestling.

Referee Tim Donaghy resigned from the NBA on July 9, accused of betting on an unspecified number of games over the past two years. NBA commissioner David Stern noted the gravity of this discovery: "We take our obligation to the fans in this matter very, very seriously, and I can stand here today and pledge that we will do everything possible...," he said during a news conference in New York.

It wasn't clear whether Donaghy tried to fix NBA games -- calling or not calling a specific foul - which affected the point spread. ESPN in its new sports programming has already noted a number of games where Donaghy was instrumental in calling fouls -- games where players hit free throws that would have covered certain betting lines.

ESPN and Turner Sports, which air the NBA games, have backed the NBA actions -- especially in cooperating with an FBI investigation. Right now, they and the NBA believe it was just one wayward ref.

But what if there were actually two or three? Then you have problems -- not just with viewers -- but with advertisers, too. 

Any question at all about the fairness of games would push advertisers into a trepidation arena. And that's not a ring marketers like to be in. Any hesitation could mean the lost of millions of dollars for pricey TV contracts, where profits can sometimes be seemingly hard to find.

Somehow when it comes to drugs and sports, it's a murkier situation for advertisers -- especially when it seems like there are only a few athletes allegedly involved. Drugged athletes don't fixed games per se -- just give some teams a better advantage.

Despite some of these accusations, TV advertisers are still buying commercial time on football, baseball and basketball games. Of course, marketers feel different about some niche sports -- professional road cycling, for example. Event sponsors and cycling team sponsors have left the sport over the last several months.

What is the tipping point for big mainstream U.S. sports?  Repeat offenses, big names -- and viewer and advertiser apathy.

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