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Commentary > SportsBiz
Baseball's dollars to stay juiced
Scandal over stars' use of steroids unlikely to hit game's popularity or dollars.
December 10, 2004: 10:04 AM EST
A weekly column by Chris Isidore, CNN/Money senior writer

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Despite the gnashing of teeth by sportswriters over baseball's problem of steroid abuse, don't expect the sport to take a hit at the turnstile next summer.

There might be some fans turned off by reports that players such as Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi and Gary Sheffield admitted to a grand jury that they took illegal performance-enhancing drugs in the past. But the news can hardly be considered a shock for most informed fans, especially in the case of Bonds and Giambi.

About a year ago, those players were called to testify before a grand jury involving Balco, the San Francisco lab that allegedly distributed the performance-enhancing drugs to athletes. But the fact they were called to testify was widely reported at that time.

Despite that round of publicity, their teams were among the most popular in the year of strong attendance, playing before full houses or near sellouts every night. And there was widespread speculation about Bonds and Giambi using steroids before most fans had ever heard of Balco.

Fact is, sports that get battered by drug and steroid scandals usually weather the storms just fine.

The Olympics are among the most popular sporting events in the country, based on the number of people who tune in every other year, but it's tough to keep track of all the Olympians who have tested positive for steroid use in the past.

Barry Bonds already had more fans with negative views of him than positive views, before the latest steroid scandal.  
Barry Bonds already had more fans with negative views of him than positive views, before the latest steroid scandal.

Track and field star Marion Jones was scarred by allegations a year ago that she got drugs from Balco. In the aftermath, she actually saw her popularity grow -- and negative opinions of her decrease -- according to a survey by Marketing Evaluations Inc., which compiles popularity ratings of celebrities used by advertisers.

Bonds and Giambi didn't see their ratings change appreciably in that survey, but neither was overwhelmingly popular to begin with. Bonds already had more negative opinions than positive opinions of him, despite his on-field accomplishments. So it's not like a much beloved star is being hurt by this scandal.

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Chuck Johnson of USA Today talks about the use of steroids among baseball players.
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Late in the 1985 season, seven players were called to testify at the trial of a man eventually convicted of dealing cocaine. There was testimony about other star players distributing drugs, including amphetamines.

Then as now, there was talk in the sports pages about baseball's tarnished image, and the Pirates attendance plunged to less than 10,000 a game. But that attendance drop probably had more to do with the team's 100-loss season than the testimony. But Pittsburgh's attendance was up more than 35 percent the next year and four years later, when the team began a string of first-place finishes, they played to big crowds again.

Fans want to keep seeing the games that are exciting and competitive. They like to see history being made. They have shown, and likely will continue to show, an amazing ability to ignore everything else, as long as they are getting what they want.

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One of baseball's high points in fan popularity came in 1998, when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa competed to break the single-season home run record. During that summer there were reports that McGwire was taking a supplement known as Andro, which had already been banned for Olympians and has since been banned by baseball. Few cared.

The biggest business hit from the scandal is likely to be to Bonds and Giambi's modest endorsement careers. But even that effect is probably overstated.

There were reports this week that baseball sponsor MasterCard had pulled out of discussions on sponsoring a promotion tied to Bonds' pursuit of the career home run record due to the steroid reports.

But both MasterCard and Major League Baseball say discussions of such a promotion had only been in an early stage. It is far too soon to say if there will be some kind of sponsored promotion late next season or early the following season, when Bonds is expected to close in on the record.

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MasterCard spokesman Chris Monteiro did concede that the scandal could make it less likely the credit card company would want to be involved. But advertisers are always somewhat more cautious in their affections than fans.

When Bonds tops Babe Ruth's lifetime home run tally, there will be a lot of gnashing of teeth by sportswriters and some fans. There will be more if and when he passes Hank Aaron.

But you can bet an All-Star's paycheck on this: Bonds will hit that historic home run in a sold out stadium in front of a large television audience.  Top of page

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