Monday, July 30, 2007

And that’s the way it is – in the sports industry

One of the quotes often associated with legendary newscaster Walter Cronkite was “and that’s the way it is”. The last few weeks have represented challenging days to the very fabric of the sports industry. From Barry Bonds pursuit of sports most cherished record, to heinous allegations directed against one of the most marketable names in professional football, to suggestions the most grievous of crimes may have been committed against the integrity of the National Basketball Association to the Tour de France being nicknamed the Tour de Farce – the sports industry as a business is facing an uncertain future after a turbulent period unlike any in the last 100 years. These are among the worst days in sports history and in a society where instant communications, the ability to communicate and influence opinions can and does take place often in a mere instance, the business of sports is at the edge of an abyss, tittering – looking at an uncertain future.

Among sports most honored records, if not the greatest symbol any athlete can achieve in a career is the career home run record. Babe Ruth hit 714 home runs in his Hall of Fame career. Hank Aaron surpassed Ruth before ending his career with 755 home runs. Friday night Bonds hit the 754th home run of his career. Some might suggest Bonds hitting 755 and 756 at AT&T Park this weekend would have been in Bonds, the Giants and MLB’s best interest. Others believe Bonds tying and surpassing Aaron Saturday or yesterday (during the Baseball Hall of Fame enshrinement for Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn) may have overshadowed baseball’s chance to honor two of the greatest in baseball history. Still one away from tying Aaron and two away from setting a new career home run mark, Barry Bonds traveling road show heads to Los Angeles for a four game series and the Giants then head to San Diego for a three game weekend series.

One person who has had enough of the Barry Bonds circus, the man who signs Bonds checks, Giants’ owner Peter Magowan.

"I can't wait until it's over," Magowan, the team's managing general partner, said before the Giants came from behind to defeat the Marlins, 12-10, at AT&T Park Friday night. "I think we'll start winning more consistently when this is behind us."

"Barry has done all that we could have basically expected of him," Magowan said about the left fielder, who finished the game batting .281 with 20 homers and 49 RBIs despite a prolonged July slump. "The question of whether to sign him or not, by his performance it was a good signing and our problems have not been because he hasn't done what we thought he would do. And that signing did not prevent us from doing other things we wanted to do, like signing a starting pitcher [Barry Zito]."

But because of that factor alone, Magowan was not ready to say whether he'd bring Bonds back in 2008 for his 23rd season and 16th in San Francisco. Bonds has categorically said he wants to play another season so, among other things, he can reach the 3,000-hit plateau. He's currently 91 hits short.

"The other part moving forward is that the strategy we've been on [building the team around Bonds with older players] is no longer working," he said, taking note that the team hasn't made the playoffs since 2003 despite Bonds reaching numerous home run milestones. "Therefore, it needs to be changed."

Could the Giants change that strategy and rebuild around Bonds, who will turn 44 midway through next season?

"I'm not going to answer that particular question," Magowan said. "You will see what the strategy is as it unfolds."

Bonds reiterated after Friday night's game that he intended to play again next year and put the onus for his return in a Giants uniform squarely on Magowan. Sound familiar?

"My last season is every last year of my contract," said Bonds, who is playing on a one-year deal that expires at the end of the season. "I've had a bunch of those, but this is not going to be my last season. I don't think so -- as a Giant or in baseball. I'm playing. Is it going to be here? I think you need to ask Peter Magowan that question."

For his part Barry Bonds continues to be his own worst enemy. On the verge of passing Aaron, Barry’s detractors continue their assault on Barry surpassing Aaron while accused (but never having tested positive) for the use of performance-enhancing drugs. It’s a battle Barry Bonds is never going to win. There remains a significant majority of journalists who for reasons that have been discussed and reported (including in many Insider Reports); nothing Barry Bonds is going to accomplish will be recognized by these writers and broadcasters.

Last week while appearing on Bob Costas’ HBO program Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling offered several opinions on baseball players who stand accused of using performance-enhancing drugs. Curt Schilling’s comments focused on the March 18, 2005 steroid congressional hearings. Schilling did appear that day, Bonds did not.

Schilling defended his testimony before Congress in the HBO interview, saying, "When you're sitting in front of Congress and you're under oath, you'd better be damn sure if you're going to mention a name that you are 100 percent guaranteed sure somebody did something."

Schilling said in reference to Rafael Palmeiro, who also appeared that day before Congress and later tested positive for steroids: "The year he tested positive, nothing he did that year should count, which I think would take away 3,000 hits for him."

Schilling believes some players are still using performance-enhancing drugs.

"There were teams that had a subculture of it," he said. "Obviously, guys are still getting caught, which shows me that even with all of the safety nets in place, people are still doing it. My understanding is that steroids and [human growth hormone], one of the main benefits of them is regeneration. If I can show up Sept. 1 and feel April fresh, I've got a huge advantage, not just that day but on everybody. And I think that's why a lot of pitchers have been caught."

Bonds hasn’t offered much about Schilling but offered some ‘interesting’ comments about Costas referring to the well respected journalist as "a little midget man who doesn't know jack about baseball."

Bonds trying to right his comments about Costas offered this in his personal blog Thursday regarding Bob Costas.

“Yesterday (Wednesday), I was asked about my thoughts about Bob Costas. My reaction stemmed from my feelings about Costas' statements during a broadcast. The comment I made about him was off-the-cuff and my problem with Costas is not with his height, but with his irresponsible journalism. If my choice of words offended anyone, that was not my intent. I have consistently said that reporters talk about "third party" conversations without having specific first-hand knowledge of what they are reporting. It is irresponsible and many get away with it day after day. Costas stated that what I am doing on the field is "inauthentic" and he made some really strong accusations about me. To quote him, "he would have been a first ballot Hall of Famer even before he started juicing. And I'm not in the category of those who say suspected juicer, I live on this planet I've seen what I've seen, I know what I know."

“I take great offense to those statements, especially coming from someone who is supposed to have journalistic integrity and not make blanket reckless accusations.”

Barry has had a fractured relationship with the media for decades. By now one would hope Barry Bonds wouldn’t care about what the media had to say about him. That doesn’t appear to be the case and for Bonds is unfortunate to say the least. Barry isn’t helping his image, the Giants and baseball by taking on people like Bob Costas. Time to move on Barry – don’t worry about what the Bob Costas’ of the world think. There is nothing whatsoever you’re going to accomplish that will change their opinions and the sooner you accept that the better your world will be.

The Tour de France ended Sunday. No one seems to care who won the race, but everyone seems focused on the wheels falling off what was once one of the greatest endurance tests in sports. That may itself be the issue facing the Tour de France. Performance enhancement drugs focus in part on offering athletes the ability to recover quickly, a key to winning an event like the Tour de France.

The wheels began falling off the Tour Wednesday when Tour leader Michael Rasmussen was kicked out of the race by his own team (after failing to show up for three pre-race drug testing opportunities). With last year’s winner (still legally the winner) Floyd Landis embroiled in a positive drug test from last years race, Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso banned from cycling – the sport of cycling isn’t standing at the end of the abyss, it’s fallen over the edge, heading towards a future that could include being banned from the Olympic Games.

“This year it has lost complete credibility,” Bradley Wiggins, whose Cofidis team quit the race when one of its riders failed a drugs test, said at a televised news conference Friday according to Bloomberg.com. “But the Tour de France is essential. It's the one race that attracts the financial backers.”

And Rabobank the team Michael Rasmussen was a part of are looking at ending their association with the sport of cycling.

"We always reconsider if something big is happening and this is big," Helen Crielaard, head of sponsorship at Rabobank, said in an interview with Reuters television.

"We have to reconsider once we get all the facts. Maybe we will change the way we are involved," said Crielaard, who added that Rabobank also sponsored the sport at a local level in the Netherlands and that would certainly continue.

"At this point there is no reason to just finish our sponsorship. But we cannot go on like this for 10 years if it doesn't get better."

"A lot of the main sponsors are going to pull out of the sport," said Gerard Vroomen, chief executive of Cervélo SA of Switzerland, a bicycle manufacturer with Canadian roots that supplies the CSC team, one of the leading competitors on the pro circuit in a Globe and Mail report. "Which I think is a great result. It's the ultimate way to clean up the sport."

"I don't know why anybody would want to invest their time or their money in that sport right now if they are concerned with the integrity and believability of the outcome," said David Carter, executive director of the University of Southern California's Sports Business Institute.

"We take the situation very seriously," Computer Sciences Corp. senior marketing manager Theresa McDermit said. "But it appears to us that there's a movement afoot to actually clean up the sport and we want to be supportive of that."

One might suggest the problems the Tour de France is facing have been a long time coming:

1903: Tour begins.

1904: The first cheating scandal occurs, after a rider is towed by a car. The top four finishers are disqualified.

1924: Two brothers are caught using chloroform, cocaine, ASA and a horse ointment to improve their results.

1967: A British cyclist dies on the mountain leg of the tour after taking amphetamines.

1978: A Belgian rider seeks to avoid testing by concealing under his arm a rubber bulb with another person's urine attached to a tube leading to his shorts.

1997: An Uzbek rider is the first to get bounced for ingesting a banned substance.

1998: The entire Festina team is kicked out after a vehicle is found loaded with banned substances. Top French rider Richard Virenque later admits using the stuff and is barred for six months.

2002: The wife of a Lithuanian racer is arrested after police discover a trunk full of performance-boosters. She says it was for her ailing mother.

2004: A French rider says his team, Codifis, engaged in doping. A British cyclist is arrested. A Spaniard expelled by his team, Kelme, says he was forced to use drugs.

2006: Tour favourite Jan Ullrich is barred from entering after being linked by Spanish police to a probe of widespread blood-doping at a Madrid clinic, a probe that ultimately ensnares 50 riders. The eventual winner, Floyd Landis, is found to have a high testosterone level after a remarkable victory in the difficult mountain stage. His victory is withdrawn. Mr. Landis is still appealing on grounds the French lab made errors in testing.

2007: The winner of the 1996 Tour, Bjarne Riis, admits he used a banned substance in his victory. Mr. Riis now heads Team CSC, regarded as one of cleanest teams.

And the news is about to get a great deal worse for cycling. The Associated Press reported on Friday that the International Olympic Committee is looking at cycling’s future as an Olympic sport.

''If cycling doesn't resolve this problem, I'd go as far as saying it should be excluded from the Olympics,'' Swiss IOC member Rene Fasel told The Associated Press. ''Just tell them 'no more.' It's discrediting all those who are honest and clean. The heads of cycling need to know that if they don't clean up the sport, and really clean it up, then it's goodbye.''

''I have only one vote but I know there are others who share my point of view: Clean up your sport and come back then. We have to apply some pressure,'' said Fasel, president of the International Ice Hockey Federation and chairman of the coordination commission for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games.

The AP reached 12 IOC members in Europe and Africa on Friday. A small number said cycling's Olympic status could be at risk; others were strongly in support of keeping the sport. But IOC member Dick Pound warned that could change if the sport's drug woes persist.

''If cycling doesn't take the steps necessary to bring this under control then I think the concern of some of the members would be that the perception of cycling will spread to other sports, and that's overall bad for the Olympic movement,'' said Pound, head of the World Anti-Doping Agency.

''I'm not one of the ones who said you should cancel the Tour de France, throw out the entire the sport, because of this sort of thing,'' he said, adding that if cycling fails to clean house soon, ''that kind of talk will increase.''

Anita DeFrantz, an IOC member from the United States, says it would be wrong to ban the sport from the Olympics. She said team managers and doctors who supply the illegal drugs are the problem.

''The sport itself is not offensive;'' DeFrantz told the AP. ''It's the people who break the rules and harm the athletes and the dignity of the sport. They're the ones who have to be gone.''

Last week while the race was in its final stages a number of media outlets suggested they would no longer cover the Tour. In the age of instant communications that meant absolutely nothing. The fall of Michael Vick (the subject of our next Insider) was caused by public focus groups that attacked Vick’s image through his sponsors. Until cycling sponsors (in particular the Tour de France corporate partners) walk away from the event, the fall of the Tour de France isn’t about to happen anytime in the near future. And as always television will remain a key to keeping sponsors happy.

“The Tour de France has been around for so long that it's bigger than any scandal,” Richard Dorfman, who negotiated the sale of TV rights for sports events including soccer's World Cup and the A1 motor racing series, said in a phone interview. “I don't want to say there's an acceptance of doping but it's not a big surprise to anyone.”

The withdrawal of two top riders and the accusations about another have prompted several sponsors to question whether it is good for their brands to be associated with the event according to a Wall Street Journal report. "It's not going to be easy to replace the sponsors that are withdrawing because of the general atmosphere" surrounding the drug allegations, said Jérôme de Chaunac, head of Havas Sports International, a sports-marketing unit of ad giant Havas SA. "I think it is, for cycling, one of the worst moments" in its history.

Maybe the saddest statement relating to the Tour de France took place Sunday morning when two members of sports reporters (TSN in Canada) looked at each other with one member of the panel suggesting to the other, can anyone really believe if everyone else associated with the Tour de France is guilty of using performance-enhancing drugs how can Lance Armstrong be the only innocent man. One of sports greatest iconic symbols, who overcame cancer to win seven consecutive Tour de France’s accused of crimes he has never committed, guilt by association. Shame on the Tour de France for that and a great deal more.

For SportsBusinessNews this is Howard Bloom. Sources cited and used in this Insider Report: MLB.com, The New York Times, Bloomberg News, Reuters and Associated Press.

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