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Sports & Scandal

Scandals are rocking all three of this country's major sports—football, baseball and basketball. It's making the sports pages read a little more like a police blotter, but it doesn't seem to be hurting the sports business a bit.

The National Football League, Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association are spending the summer trying to get out from under black clouds.

The FBI indicted Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick for conducting illegal dog-fighting in his home, cruelty to animals and—worst of all as far as the NFL is concerned —gambling, which the league strictly forbids.

San Francisco Giants Barry Bonds broke the all-time home-run record, even though almost everyone who knows baseball believes he's spent most of the past decade using performance-enhancing drugs to get there.

And in what is perhaps the most damaging of the three situations, NBA referee Tim Donaghy pleaded guilty to charges related to FBI alllegations that he bet on NBA games, including some he officiated.

Of those three situations, only Donaghy has any chance of affecting the sport as a whole, say experts. And that's only if the accused ref is part of a much broader syndicate that includes other officials, or worse, players and coaches. Donaghy is expected to tell all to the FBI, though the NBA says it has no reason to believe any others were involved. But the taint will be there the first time this season that an official makes an unpopular call.

“Sports are the only reality shows in the world where every day you don't know the outcome,” says Bob LaMonte, president and owner of Professional Sports Representation in Reno, Nev. “Once you start discussing cheating within the sport, it really cuts to the very fiber of what makes sports real.”

All In The Timing

“Something like this is the commissioner's worst nightmare,” says LaMonte. “I can't think of anything worse than this that could happen.”

Conveniently, three weeks before the Donaghy gambling scandal broke, the NBA renewed its television rights for an average of $930 million a year for the next eight years.

“The NBA's ratings are terrible, but there's a huge disconnect between ratings and rights,” says Ron Rapoport, former sports columnist with the Chicago Sun Times and sports commentator on NPR's “Weekend Edition.” “The leagues are all monopolies so the networks bid each other up regardless of what the ratings are. And even if the NBA's ratings are bad, they're still better than what TNT would get airing reruns.”

It's true that the last NBA Finals—in which the San Antonio Spurs swept the Cleveland Cavaliers for their fourth championship in nine years—was the lowest-rated NBA Final ever. But even after that poor showing, the NBA still commanded 20% rate hikes in license fees,which for the first time included digital rights.

As for Michael Vick, he isn't expected to play this year—or ever again if the allegations against him pan out. The number-one draft pick in 2001 has certainly taken a huge financial hit: he signed a 10-year, $130 million contract with the Falcons in December 2004 that is likely now null and void and he had $7 million worth of endorsement deals, including contracts with Nike, Coca-Cola, Hasbro, Kraft Foods and AirTrans. Nike's already refused to release a Vick-branded athletic shoe.

No Limits

But Vick's personal situation is unlikely to affect the NFL at all, say experts. Football is by far the most lucrative sport in the country, reaping an average of $3.7 billion per year in broadcast rights on six platforms: CBS, NBC, Fox, ESPN, DirecTV and the NFL Network. It's endured scandals before.

“I refer to the NFL as the free-pass league,” says Mike Greenberg, one of the commentators on ESPN Radio's Mike and Mike in the Morning. “This country is so in love with football that we will put up with anything.”

That said, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who has been in the position for just a year, is cracking down hard on players' poor personal behavior in an effort to maintain the league's image.

“The NFL prides itself on image,” says LaMonte. “If there's one thing that speaks volumes to this it's that I have never seen a commissioner move as proactively or as decisively as the new commissioner of football.”

Finally, Major League Baseball continues to deal with the issue of steroid use in the league, but it took so long to act, if fans wanted to protest, they'd have done a better job of it by now. In fact, it was the home run race between St. Louis Cardinal Mark McGwire and Chicago Cub Sammy Sosa in 1998 almost a decade ago that encouraged Bonds to start on the journey that so surprisingly changed his body and his game. Still, there's a taint. When Bonds slugged his record-tying 755th home run on Aug. 4, baseball commissioner Bud Selig was there to see it, but he kept his hands in his pockets rather than applaud.

So did most of America. Bonds' 755th home run earned ESPN2 a 1.1 rating, or 1.7 million households. That's not bad for ESPN2, but America basically ignored it. But baseball fans, well, will always be baseball fans, and few believe the Bonds controversy will hurt MLB's coffers.

Long Memories

Baseball has returned to favor since the damaging player strikes' of the 90s. In the past year, baseball has extended its rights deals with Fox, TBS, ESPN and DirecTV with deals averaging $750 million per year for the next seven years.

“In its own way, the Barry Bonds controversy is an indirect effect of a financial problem,” says Greenberg. “In 1994, for the first time, the World Series was cancelled. When they finally came back, fans were very slow to forgive and forget.

One of the things that definitely brought fans back were Sosa and McGwire. In retrospect, it would be beyond naïve to think that the powers-that-be at baseball never suspected this dramatic increase in baseball players' power did not involve performance-enhancing drugs. It brought so many fans back to baseball that I believe they consciously turned a blind eye.”

While sports scandals may feed the front pages, fuel sports-talk radio and keep fans buzzing, they don't keep viewers from wanting to see their teams play, says Greenberg: “Fans compartmentalize. Their enjoyment of the game is unaffected by their personal moral views.”