Not Just Bonds: More Athletes On Drugs Would Make Sponsors Jumpy

Last July German TV networks stopped airing the Tour de France because one mid-level German cyclist from a German-based team tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs.

In this country, one of the biggest names in U.S. sports, San Francisco Giants baseball slugger Barry Bonds, has been indicted for lying about taking steroids to boost his baseball numbers.

Will U.S.-based TV networks have similar troubles: for example, selling Major League Baseball to advertisers next year because of this scandal? More specifically, will local TV sponsors stop advertising on San Francisco Giants baseball games?

That's crazy, you say -- especially since the team cut Bond loose before the indictment.  And, anyway, isn't Major League Baseball's performance-enhancing drug problems really about one player, Bonds -- or at worst a handful of baseball players?

All this is naïve.

The White House Deputy Drug Czar Scott Burns says U.S. sports leagues are way behind the times when it comes to testing for drugs -- and worst when it comes to penalties. They are behind big international sports -- cycling, soccer, track and field. Specifically the U.S. leagues don't want to adopt the World Anti-Doping Agency standards.

"They don't want to sign on because it's tough and it's specific and there are consequences and it will be monitored and cheaters will be caught and exposed," Burns told reporters recently in a phone conference.

Cycling, for one, has paid the price. Because of positive drug testing, dozens of team and TV sponsors have left the sport. Other major worldwide companies, such as T-Mobile, are considering leaving as well. It's hard to blame them -- what with the rash of high profile ejections of top cyclists at this year's Tour de France,  most recently highlighted by the drug-tested ouster of American Floyd Landis as 2006 Tour champion.

But consider this: This past July's Tour de France, because of those ejections and increased scrutiny and monitoring from its teams, was perhaps the cleanest event on record, according to some observers.

For one U.S.-based team -- Lance Armstrong's powerful Discovery Channel Cycling team -- all this comes too late. The team was unable to secure a new title sponsor mostly because of uncertainty with the sport.  

Big U.S. sports seemingly have no advertising problems in this regard. PR spin has slapped the label on cyclists as druggies -- that anywhere from 60% to 70% of cycling professionals have, at one time or other, taken performance-enhancing medication.

But this isn't the PR spin for NFL, NBA, or Major League Baseball players. We really don't think that teams like the Dallas Cowboys, the Indianapolis Colts, or the New England Patriots really have that kind of advantage.

One wonders, if those major sports were to get hit with the same level of positive drug tests as cyclists or track and field athletes, if you would you see TV sport sponsors and consumers defect in large numbers.

It's hard to say. Senior U.S. sport league officials need to protect their brands, their big financial asset. History suggests major drug news of, say, scores of U.S. athletes, would mean major hits. For example, European TV networks airing pro-road cycling over the last 12 months witnessed noticeable lower overall TV ratings.

The NFL? Ratings have never been better -- almost recession-proof in this marketplace. TV advertisers have found it a safe haven, especially given the problems of now-accelerating viewer erosion among network TV non-sport prime-time shows.

Tackling any drug problem will be a major effort. But once underway, it'll create piling on by sports sponsors



Next story loading loading..