With MLB Under Attack, Will TV Advertisers Take Their Own Cuts?

Drugs and baseball found a new slump yesterday, as scores of players past and present were linked to taking performance-enhancing drugs -- including major stars the likes of Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, and Miguel Tejada.


The question remains: Will baseball put its TV advertisers into the same swing and abyss?

Now the game and drugs are no longer associated by just a handful of names like Barry Bonds, Jose Canseco, or Mark McGwire. Drug use is officially -- though not proven -- more widespread.

What happens now to those marketers who have been long-time Major League Baseball sponsors, as well as all those automotive, telecommunications, fast food restaurants, financial services, beer companies, and other advertisers who spent hundreds of millions of dollars on local stations and cable and broadcast networks?

Apart from Bonds, no player has been charged with any crime. Additionally, there have been only a handful of scattered positive test results. Right now it's just a player issue, not a team issue, and certainly not a TV network or station issue.



As has been said in this column more than a few times, the sponsors of sports other than baseball can be more nervous. Especially in cycling and track and field, the mere mention of athletes doing drugs more or less end their careers. Not only that, but those sponsors also pull a quick trigger, killing off major events and major teams -- almost instantly.

A few weeks ago, T-Mobile, after almost two decades in sponsoring a major German-based professional cycling team, left in a lurch -- after a long series of drug confessions by team cyclists going as far back as the early '90s, including Bjarne Riis, Tour de France champion in 1996.

Phonak, a Swiss-based hearing aid company, and Liberty Seguros, a subsidiary of insurance company Liberty Mutual, are other major sponsors who have withdrawn support for their teams -- directly because of the drug accusations and positive tests of their teams' athletes.

Going forward, my guess is that baseball players will still get tens of millions for contracts, and that TV advertisers will still pay millions to get exposure during baseball games.

Why will this happen? Because unlike small professional sports, major sports like MLB and NFL have sponsors that can keep a certain distance between them and teams and players. But when you have a marketers' name across your jersey, as in soccer, track and field, and cycling, that's another story.

If a player gets caught for substance abuse, it's his or her problem -- unless he has an endorsement deal with a TV marketer. Then it becomes a sponsor's problem.

Still, if the ranks of accused players start swelling, some TV advertisers could rethink baseball media plans -- and may cautiously pull back.

On Thursday, the day The Mitchell Report on performance-enhancing drugs was released, ESPN decided the news was worthy enough to sacrifice some of its own TV advertisers throughout the day -- all to accommodate the lengthy live press conferences and analysis.

By the start of next season, the ball could be in the marketers' hands, and it may not only be accused players' reputations -- both present and past - that feel the pinch.

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