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As the Biogenesis fiasco finally reached its breaking point with the announcement of the uncontested suspensions of 12 players and the appealable suspension of Alex Rodriguez, it's time to ask if the PED chapter is coming to a close or whether the hits will keep on coming for MLB. It's an important question because experts are divided on whether the recent wave of suspensions is harmful to the league, and the other players within it, when it comes to marketability.
Argument 1: Case Closed
|Will players like Ryan Braun foil the marketability future of other MLB players?|
"I don't think this is going to blackball baseball and baseball players from sponsorship deals," said McDonnell.
"Anytime you're a company and you decide to go with a celebrity or athlete to endorse your product, it's a calculated risk," he said.
Even with the recent suspensions, McDonnell says the risk for marketers is low when it comes to MLB, not just because of the PED policy itself, but also because players not involved in the PED scandal have taken such a hard stance against the accused.
"There's far more safety in baseball right now because of the stringent drug-test policy. And what's important is that the players are leading the charge, not the owners," said McDonnell.
Indeed, not only did the MLB Players Association agree to the testing currently in place through the collective bargaining process, but a number of players have spoken out against Ryan Braun since he became the first of the Biogenesis group to accept punishment.
The Dodgers' Skip Schumaker expressed perhaps the most disgust.
"I know we have an agreement; we all agreed upon the agreement -- 50, 100," Schumaker said, referring to the escalating penalties in the CBA for each positive drug test: 50 games for the first offense, 100 for the second and a lifetime ban for the third.
"I thought that was enough at the beginning of it," Schumaker said. "But apparently not. Watching [Braun] talk right now makes me sick."
By taking a hard line on the matter, players like Schumaker are protecting both the marketability of the sport and those players whose names have not been connected to PED usage, says McDonnell.
"I look at it from the standpoint of you can't let a few bad seeds ruin it for everyone else," said McDonnell. "Right now, MLB is at an excellent point in its history. The game finally has a nice infusion of youth. That is very highly marketable, and it's very diverse in terms of the international arena.
"If I'm looking at Bryce Harper, Manny Machado and David Wrights of the world, there's an abundance of opportunities for them."
McDonnell says the tough suspensions, and the support from outspoken players, signals the beginning of a new era for baseball.
"Finally, the game is restoring confidence in it, and the fans are seeing that," he said. "By no means do I think this is a black eye on baseball. Everyone has come to the realization that there will always be pharmaceuticals on the market -- but you'll get caught.
"[It's a] closing of a chapter in baseball history no one is really proud of."
Argument 2: It Ain't Over Yet
Not so fast, says Dan Bruton, a sport marketing professor at San Diego State University. The fat lady has not yet sung.
Bruton says not only will those suspended see their endorsement opportunities dry up, but so will every other player in baseball.
"I think there's definitely guilt by association going on in baseball right now. It's really been going on the past decade," said Bruton.
Bruton references the fact that baseball players are already experiencing a depressed market for their endorsements. According to the latest report by Forbes, Derek Jeter makes the most from endorsements in MLB at $9 million annually; Alex Rodriguez came in at just $500,000. Compare those numbers to LeBron James at $42 million. Bruton says players like Rodriguez and Jeter, who are playing in the nation's biggest market, for arguably one of the best teams in the world in terms of brand value, should be making tens of millions.
"I think the market has already spoken on that and what they think about baseball and the ongoing scandals," he said.
Asked if the low endorsement figures can be attributed to the regional nature of baseball, Bruton said no.
"Regardless, when you have someone who is of star quality like a Jeter or [Rodriguez], they're bigger than life and everything is lined up for them," he said. "When you're in New York and with the Yankees, it goes way beyond regional. There is some of that, but when you're talking about Yankees brand and players that are doing best-player-ever-type statistics -- a large part just has to be [that] brands don't want to be associated with the scandal."
Bruton does, however, see the most recent suspensions as an opportunity for MLB to turn things around. Suspending so many players at once shows a real effort being made to clean up the sport and make it family-friendly again.
That being said, Bruton believes MLB did the right thing not throwing the book at Rodriguez. A lifetime ban, Bruton says, would always follow around both Rodriguez and MLB. In every interview Rodriquez ever did, going forward he'd be asked about it, a la Pete Rose.
Allowing Rodriguez to play during his appeal, however, isn't the right move either, according to Bruton.
"From a sports-marketing perspective, letting him play during the appeal will keep the focus on PEDs and A-Rod, and not on rebuilding the MLB brand. The best-case scenario is that this goes away as quietly as possible."
Bruton thinks the ideal situation for MLB would have been to effectively end Rodriguez's career with a 150-game suspension that did not allow for an appeal, but to allow him to collect the rest of his contract. That would have required MLB either to suspend him under the "best interest of baseball" clause, which begins the suspension immediately, or to negotiate a settlement with Rodriguez that waived his right to appeal.
"[He'd] get his money," said Bruton. "And he probably wouldn't be coming back to the game with his age and coming off an injury.
"That's the best-case scenario for everyone involved."