Is Image Everything?
For many years, the soft drink Sprite’s advertising featured the tag line, “Image is Everything,” with various sports figures as spokespersons. In the world of sports, news about one negative incident travels
much farther than a dozen feature stories about altruism. Recently, image once again came under attack in professional sports. During the final week of July in 2007, three major leagues were plagued by bad
One startling incident emerged when the FBI arrested NBA referee Tim Donaghy, who was accused of influencing the scores of games in order to win bets and pay off gambling debts to bookies connected
with organized crime. Gambling casts a powerful shadow over sports. If fans cannot believe that the rules are fair and being enforced equally, the legitimacy of what is taking place cannot be restored. Each
time a questionable call takes place, fans will wonder if the referee has a vested interest in the outcome of the contest.
NBA Commissioner David Stern quickly moved to assure the world that the one ref was a loner and that the overall integrity of the league remained solid. He was countering the many “conspiracy theories”
that linger around the sport, and have for many years, dating back to what were once known as the “Jordan rules,” whereby Michael Jordan was alleged to receive special treatment from officials, among other
At the same time, NFL quarterback Michael Vick was arrested and charged with running a dog-fighting ring on his personal property. Dog lovers of all kinds, from the PETA to individual owners, were
appalled. The brutality of dog fighting, along with the unsavory characters associated with it, caused Vick to lose endorsement contracts for athletic shoes and clothes.
The Atlanta Falcons team owners struggled with the choice of suspending Vick for only four games, which clearly would have led to protests and more negative press, or to allow NFL officials to suspend him
for the entire year. Suspending Vick for an entire year would have undoubtedly caused the team to lose games. One cynical reporter noted that Vick would have been better off as a rapist than as a dog fighter.
Members of several professional sports that had been charged with sexual assault or with spousal abuse continued their careers without a great deal of ongoing publicity or criticism.
Also during that troubling week, baseball’s Barry Bonds was on the verge of breaking one of the most noteworthy records in Major League Baseball. Henry Aaron’s all-time home run record was about to fall.
At the time, Bonds was under investigation for not only using steroids, but also for lying to a grand jury about that use. Congressional and criminal investigations were underway, and Bonds eventually faced
Bond’s personal demeanor contributed to the image problem. Aaron was a popular and heroic figure. Bonds was viewed as being difficult, sullen, and disagreeable to members of the media and the public. His
credibility was injured by conflicting statements about unknowingly rubbing a steroid cream on his legs and arms, yet claiming he never used banned substances.
Doping and steroid use have clearly affected professional sports for many years. The Tour de France has identified several violations over the years. Professional football has been tainted as much as baseball.
The harshest critics, including some associated with various sports, insist that all records that were broken by athletes using human growth hormone or steroids should be stricken.
The popularity of various sports had clearly started to diminish. Television ratings for the 2007 NBA Finals were down from previous years, as were ratings for baseball’s World Series, where Game 1 had
lower ratings than a pay-per-view event featuring mixed martial arts (extreme) fighting. Sports fans have more choices than ever. The NBA playoffs overlap with the playoffs in professional hockey. Baseball
overlaps with the collegiate and professional football season. In such an environment, it becomes clear that those associated with each sport should probably consider the fact that “Image is Everything.”
Sources: Sean Gregory, “Five Ways to Think about Barry Bonds,” Time 170, no. 3 (July 16, 2007), pp. 40–41; Judy Battista, “NFL Faces Protests and Pressure over Vick,” New York Times (July 21,
2007), p. D4; Jack McCallum, “Game-Fixing and Dogfighting Rock Pro Sports (and Barry Bonds Marches On),” Sports Illustrated 107, no. 4 (July 30, 2007), pp. 34–48; Tom Knott, “Donaghy Will Cause
Paranoia,” The Washington Times (August 17, 2007), section Sports, p. 1.
(1) As a marketing professional, how should each league respond to its image problem?
(2) What tools are available to help a team or league react to negative publicity?
(3) Can you think of any other methods to help a professional sport build a positive image?
(4) Go to the Web sites of the NBA, NFL, and MLB. What types of image-building stories, activities, or involvements are present?
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