Marketing In The Era Of The Modern-day ‘Joe Hardy’

In his August, 2013 posting, SLRG President Jon Last offers perspective on the marketing implications of the PED scandal in MLB as well as the litany of sensationalistic off-field stories on high profile athletes.

I’m not old enough to remember the original production, but someone should produce a 21st century adaptation of the 1950s era musical, “Damn Yankees.” For those unfamiliar with the original, the basic plot line of the show, which was adapted from the novel, “The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant,” concerns a long-suffering Washington Senators baseball fan, who agrees to sell his soul to the devil to come back as Joe Hardy, a young phenom who will deliver an elusive title. In the original show (spoiler alert), Hardy has an ethical change of heart and negates the deal at the final moment, only to still pull out the pennant.

In the new version, Hardy can take on the persona of Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Johnny Manziel, or a litany of modern day stars “gone awry.” In the new “Damn Yankees,” our protagonist won’t give in to a bout of remorseful contemplation and ultimate ethical triumph. Instead, he will look for a scapegoat, deny any associations with the devil and for all intents and purposes go on with a lucrative career full of endorsements, on-field success and financial independence. Many will self-righteously malign the modern-day Joe Hardy and cast him as a villain and a symbol of all that is wrong with sport. We will rally around the self-importance of setting better examples. But at the end of the day, we will still have the memory of that moment in the sun, before Joe Hardy’s dark side was exposed, where we basked in the glory of triumph in a win-at-all-costs world. And if we are honest with ourselves, we’ll be fine with that.

Like you, I’ve followed every twist and turn of the recent MLB PED saga, of Johnny Football’s autograph scandal, of the moral death and year-later reincarnation of Coach Bobby Petrino, and I’ve been desensitized to it all. I still love sports. It remains my livelihood and my passion. And while I consider myself to be ethically and morally grounded, I still recognize the value of being a champion. Whether or not a Penn State supporter believes that the late Joe Paterno was complicit in the Jerry Sandusky scandal, the national glory and Big Ten titles have been vacated only in the record books, not in fans’ memories.

After too much labor unrest and a dip in popularity and relevance, Major League Baseball lifted itself out of a rut in the late 1990s with Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire….with Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez and a long ball renaissance that compelled the casual fan, yet still intrigued the already committed. “Chicks dig the Long Ball,” the advertising said, and baseball was back in the limelight.

As sports marketers, we needn’t be apologists for unethical or illegal athlete behavior; rather, we need to work within the reality of the bigger and more lucrative stage that our clients/properties now play on. Our instincts and the most amplified voices of the media and fan communities may strongly suggest otherwise. But behind the grandstanding and the rhetoric, the pragmatic among us will recognize that we are products of our own creation. If we are honest with ourselves, we recognize that, like Joe Hardy, we might be willing to sell our souls to the devil for the sweet taste of victory. As 55% of football fans under age 35 indicated in our 2013 sports omnibus study, they’d sacrifice their health in their golden years to taste NFL fame and fortune at the same time as they express concern over the dangers of concussions in football. In the words of the late Al Davis, “Just win, baby.” And as Nike says in one of the most iconic campaigns of our era, “Just do it.”

We do and should applaud ourselves for being part of the machinery that has elevated sports to a level on par with any form of entertainment. So why, then, do we need to seem so astounded when our 24/7 social media-infused information stream reveals sports’ latest version of an “E True Hollywood Story?” Does that detract from the competition on the field and the rewarding satisfaction that we feel as fans in the moment that Ryan Braun accepts his MVP award? Do the suspensions in the Biogenesis case take away from the enjoyment that fans derived from seeing these players perform at a high level? Are we so naïve to believe that there won’t be future Anthony Bosch’s with a bigger better way of masking PEDs in drug tests?

And while we can put asterisks next to the tainted achievements of the steroid era, if we believe that PEDs were prevalent, does that take away from the actual performances that were the best of that era, amidst a playing field of others similarly enhanced? I’m a sports marketer but I’m also a sports fan. I’m captivated by the competition, the strategy, the personal sacrifice that athletes make to lay it all on the line and the rush of achievement in successful execution. So is your target audience. So, let’s vow to be better people and let’s definitely try to deter unwanted behavior and instill proper values in the young athletes of tomorrow. But at the same time, let’s remember that you can’t put the genie back in the bottle.