Dec 11, 2011, 11:35
There was a time when a bad attitude or negative actions by athletes off the field were overlooked if the player had talent. From Ty Cobb to Jim Brown to Dale Earnhardt Sr. fans, sponsors and owners just accepted their questionable actions as a cost of doing business. However, times have changed. Last weekend Kurt Busch was fired from team Penske after raging into an oath filled tirade when a reporter asked him a question about an incident with Tony Stewart. Busch said that the 2 mutually agreed to part ways but everyone close to the incident said that Penske said he just had enough and told Kurt he was no longer needed. Busch has 24 wins in his career including two in 2011 as well as a Sprint Cup championship but Penske decided that talent wasn’t enough to warrant keeping him on. Kurt’s brother, Kyle Busch found himself suspended for a full weekend 2 weeks prior after purposely spinning out Ron Hornaday in a Craftsman Truck race and his sponsor M&Ms told owner Joe Gibbs they didn’t want to be associated with him for the remainder of the year. Gibbs apparently even considered letting Busch go but decided to keep him on, though on a short leash. Interstate Batteries sponsored the car instead for those races and M&Ms has signed on with Kyle for part of 2012 but they warned Gibbs that if Busch’s attitude didn’t improve they were going to leave him.
Of course it’s not just NASCAR where this is being displayed. In golf, Tiger Woods lost most of his sponsorship after news of his numerous affairs came to light and fans stopped supporting him in droves. Despite being the most talented golfer to come along since Jack Nicklaus companies like Gatorade, AT&T and Accenture decided that the rewards from having his sponsorship didn’t outweigh the cost. Prior to the incident a sponsorship from Tiger Woods would help drive sales of their product but afterwards the value just wasn’t there. When they believed Woods was a great role model to kids and adults alike, companies like Gatorade could justify the millions of dollars in endorsements since he would help sell product. But with the news of his infidelity and more importantly his deceptiveness and poor attitude, Gatorade decided he just wasn’t worth the negative vies the general public had of him. And recently it was announced sponsors have had enough of John Daly after a childish display in Australia where he purposely hit all his golf balls into the pond so that he could leave the tournament early. The organizers and sponsors of that event also told him he was no longer welcome.
In team sports players that would have easily thrived in the past despite bad behavior are now finding it difficult to get continued support from teams who now view them as a liability. Terrell Owens effectively killed his own career with his behavior on and off the field and Pacman Jones barely got a look following his off-field incidents. He now plays for Cincinnati but has very little fan support and is just a shadow of his former self. Alex Rodriguez is loathed outside of New York and reports have said that A-Rod jersey sales have dried up as a result of his temper and poor actions off the field. As well there was little sympathy for Barry Bonds after the steroid scandal. While other players who admitted to using steroids such as Sammy Sosa generated a lot of team and fan support despite their actions, Barry Bonds was not one of those since most considered him a jerk and they were glad to see him disgraced.
The one exception to the rule may be Michael Vick. After serving time for organizing and participating in dog fights, Vick has successfully returned to Philadelphia. Mind you, he is still loathed by many and most dog lovers outside of Philadelphia have never forgiven him. But the fact that Atlanta immediately parted ways with their star player was telling. Twenty years ago the team probably would have stood behind him and argued that off field behavior was no reason to let a franchise player leave.
The difference between the last generation of sports and this generation is that in the past sports events occurred for the enjoyment of the fans. Players were paid fairly small salaries and most fans could afford to purchase the tickets. So if players misbehaved, there was really nothing anyone could do about it since the players effectively controlled their own destiny. Today, however, sports teams are like any other business and are owned by corporations who are looking to make as much money as possible. Consequently player salaries have become obscene and ticket prices have soared. Most of the prime seats are owned by corporations who give out the tickets as a sales promotion and the companies expect that the teams will represent their values at least somewhat. If the teams don’t then there’s a problem. For example, Purina has a plant in Atlanta and a nearby sales office in Fairburn, Georgia. Had the Atlanta Falcons decided to keep Michael Vick then there is probably no chance Purina could have ever given out tickets to the Falcons as a promotional item since being associated with Vick could have become a negative for the company. After all, why would a dog food company want to associate itself with a player that arranged dog fights? On the sponsorship side of things it’s even more pronounced. In NASCAR there aren’t enough sponsors to support 43 drivers which has resulted in start and parks, i.e. teams with no sponsors that begin a race to win prize money but then withdraw from the race prior to the first pit stop. And sponsors have made it known that if a driver does not represent their values and is not a good spokesperson for their product they will withdraw it. Bass Pro Shops, for example, was disappointed when Martin Truex Jr. left the #1 car and was replaced by Jamie McMurray. Truex represented everything the store sold, from hunting to boating equipment while Jamie McMurray didn’t. And McMurray was said to have a poor attitude. They planned on pulling out but held on after McMurray had some success and more importantly proved he could be a good spokesperson. Since his attitude improved, the company stayed on as a sponsor. Pennzoil, on the other hand, saw no advantage to being associated with a foul mouthed crybaby and so they apparently had a hand in convincing Gibbs to let Kurt Busch go, or they may have pulled their sponsorship of the #22 car. In other sports it was revealed that many companies like Nike will be sponsoring fewer players and they want players with both talent and a good attitude.
The other difference between today and the past is that the talent is more spread out nowadays. In the past there was a wide divide between star players and the others, but today most players in the league are fairly evenly matched talent wise. Sure there are players who stand above the others such as Lebron James or Albert Pujols but for every Pacman Jones, Terrell Owens, Todd Bertuzzi or Latrell Sprewell there are 40 others with similar talent who would be only too happy to have their job. And both teams and sponsors are in the driver’s seat. And teams are realizing that the advantage of taking on an attitude like Sprewell just isn’t worth it when there are so many others who could fill his shoes. So if the player believes he is more important than he is or if he brings down the value of the franchise with his actions they will let him go. And as many of these players are finding, landing with another team for a similar salary isn’t all that easy.
Without question, this change is good for both fans and even sports bettors. Fans are tired of seeing spoiled athletes complain about their lot in life and many parents are tired of trying to justify actions to their children. And on the betting side of things, the poor actions of players are resulting in numerous suspensions which makes it harder to handicap. For example following the dog fighting scandal with Vick, any bettor that wagered on the Atlanta Falcons to win the Super Bowl the following year saw their bets go down the drain and it’s extremely frustrating to see a story that “player x” has been suspended for 2 games for his actions which in turn costs both the teams and the fans.
Kurt Busch’s firing was certainly a positive turn of events. The general reaction in NASCAR forums has been “good riddance” and fans can only hope that other owners will continue to follow suit and let it be known that talent is no longer good enough to keep a job.
Contact Hartley via email at Hartley[at]osga[dot]com.
NW: 7, 31, 3, 11, 60, 88, 12
Trucks: 9, 88, 3, 7, 17, 31
IRL: 10, 11, 12, 26, 3, 38, 27
RIP Dan Wheldon
"Fight for Four"- Annalee
You got to have a big gigantic drum kit.