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Can Fallen Athletes Actually Drive Sports Value?

Danica Patrick’s divorce, Lance Armstrong, Manti Teo…superstars in their sport who continue to lead the hit list in exposure away from the sports pages. When it comes to scandal these days, it seems like every week there is another athlete leading the way from the back pages to the gossip and news pages. There is no doubt that the crossover drives traffic and sells ads, but does it drive more interest for casual fans to sport? Will there be a brand that looks to find a way to capitalize on the harsh light of fame shown on a fallen athlete, and is there a benefit or any kind of halo effect brought to a sport, or an entity because of a fallen star?

This week we saw that Livestrong, the charity which Armstrong helped found that has raised millions for cancer awareness, take a public hit with the MLS’ Sporting Kansas City club, which removed its name from their Livestrong Park after a difference in opinion on the contractual deliverables with their sponsorship. Whether that is tied to the Armstrong news this week directly or not, it is still another blow in the public eye in the continued downward spiral of Armstrong, one which will continue when his interview with Oprah Winfrey airs on OWN Thursday night.

So the question remains, is there any good that can come out of living on the gossip page as well as the front page? “The positive, if you can call it that, is that the world of sports mixed with entertainment continues to grow, and that is reflective in the massive amounts of coverage in the mainstream that athletes get, both positively and negatively,” said Ed Horne president of Madison Avenue Sports and Entertainment and a longtime sports business insider. “Sports used to be just pure reality lived out on the field every day. When the game ended the drama stopped. Now we want more as a society, and that is reflected in all the news that happens off the field which drives ratings and interest as well. Is it a positive that the falls of athletes drive all this interest? No. But what is positive hopefully is that in some instances the good stories may receive a second look where they didn’t before. It is tough to separate the on and off field antics now, but that is what drives ratings and that’s also what makes brands smarter when getting involved. They want the big numbers and those hopefully don’t come with the spectacle alone.”

The issue of Livestrong and its positive halo effect on the lives of millions is also an interesting case study going forward. The charity has long distanced itself from Armstrong, but continually gets pulled back into the morass of innuendo and controversy because of its founder. All its good work can be sullied, even at a distance, by the attachment. “The Livestrong brand and what has happened due to the Armstrong case is a tragedy,” added Bryan Harris, COO and Managing Partner of Taylor, one of the leading brand strategy firms based in New York. “The work they have done and the monies raised should be celebrated every day, yet they are still tied by their history to Lance Armstrong. That type of attention doesn’t benefit them. It becomes a distraction and will give many people a chance to think twice before donating or associating now, whereas in the past they would have been the first place people went.”

Still with all the distractions and the gossip, sports business continues to be one of the fastest growing industries globally. While Armstrong and Teo soaked up headlines, the New York Cosmos announced plans to build a $400 million stadium on Long Island, despite playing in the second tier North American Soccer League, while record numbers tuned in to watch the NFL playoffs, massive crowds turned out for the Australian Open and the NBA took their place in London with the Knicks playing the Detroit Pistons. Brands will spend millions on The Super Bowl, the Daytona 500, The Premier League, and even niche sports like curling, all trying to capture the passionate fan base.

So does the controversy ultimately help, despite the damage? “It hopefully is not the real reason people tune in and it certainly isn’t the reason brands engage, but it certainly does keep sports figures top of mind for those who aren’t following.” Horne added. “The real hope is that people may come because of the issue and then see the passion and all the positives that are really the essence of sport, that’s the only way to try and find a positive spin in such craziness.” 

One thing is for sure though. Casual fans do love the fallen stars, and it seems now more than ever, those falls are harder and more frequent, whether they are on a velodrome, a race track or the gridiron. The games on and off the field continue.

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