SBJ/September 17 - 23, 2007/SBJ In Depth

Bad Behavior: Will Fans Ever Walk Away?

By now, if you have been paying any attention at all, you have heard the story of the call to the cockpit of Arthur Blank’s private jet, telling the pilot to wake the Atlanta Falcons owner and deliver the news of Michael Vick’s indictment, along with the horrific details contained within.

Wake the owner. Much like wake the president, it carries a fitting sense of gravity and urgency.

But what of life on the ground that night, and in the days that followed, for others associated with the Falcons, either as employees, sponsors or fans?

What must it have been like to be Jim Smith, suddenly standing at ground zero during the summer in which character issues shook sports? The Falcons’ vice president of marketing read the news on his BlackBerry while at his daughter’s softball practice, then drove to work the next morning knowing each of the team’s 49 sponsors would want answers he could not possibly provide.

Six companies that advertised on the Falcons’ Web site started getting calls and e-mails from animal rights activists within hours of Vick’s indictment. Every sponsor wanted to know what the Falcons, and the league, planned to do about it. For five interminable days, while the team, league and players union investigated, studied and discussed the matter, all Falcons executives could do was ask fans and sponsors to wait patiently, and to trust.

Michael Vick’s guilty plea to federal dogfighting
charges is the latest stain on the NFL’s image.

Two months later, it appears most have done that. The Falcons did not lose any sponsors and added three. All are running promotions or using the sponsorship in other visible ways at the Falcons’ home opener on Sunday, Smith said. The deadline for suite, premium-seat and season-ticket renewals landed before Vick was indicted, so the Falcons are insulated against a revolt there.

“People want to see us do well and win,” said Dick Sullivan, the team’s executive vice president of marketing. “It’s unprecedented, so you don’t really know. But the rallying cry here locally is that the steps that Arthur and Rich (McKay, the team president) and Bobby Petrino (the coach) have taken have been fully supported.”

He’s right. It is unprecedented. And you don’t really know. When a large bomb goes off, there is damage, then collateral damage, then residual damage. It can take years to accurately assess all three.

The same could be said for the impact of what has been a summer of character and image implosion across sports.

The extent of the damage to the sports economy: Still undetermined.

“What happened with Michael Vick is not going to have a short-term impact on any market outside of Atlanta,” said Kansas City Chiefs Chairman Clark Hunt, whose family-owned team has remained relatively trouble-free in recent years. “But there certainly can be an overall taint that I think shows up on a long-term basis, in terms of developing fans of the sport of pro football. It certainly could cause some parents to say, you know, maybe this is not a sport we want our children to grow up being a fan of.”

While he has become the face of this issue, Vick is but a small piece of it. NFL players have been arrested 334 times since Jan. 1, 2000, according to the exhaustive, ongoing research of the staff at the San Diego Union-Tribune, which examined the league’s conduct problems earlier this year.

The NBA, too, took a broadside blow this summer when referee Tim Donaghy admitted that he was paid to provide inside information to bookmakers. This while the league was trying to rehab an image that has already taken hits for players brawling with fans in the stands, a thuggish All-Star Weekend in Las Vegas and the occasional, but seemingly never-ending, pops from players busted while carrying, and sometimes firing, guns.

In baseball, accusations of steroid use soured Barry Bonds’ historic home run chase and reports that he bought HGH spoiled the Lazarus-like comeback story of St. Louis Cardinals pitcher-turned-slugger Rick Ankiel. Cheating may not be a crime, but it is one of the more incendiary words in sport. Ask Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro.

What fans say

You will be hard-pressed to find anyone in sports, or in most businesses or walks of life, who would argue that character doesn’t matter. Why it matters, how it matters and how much it matters is a conversation that can go on for hours, splitting off in unpredictable directions, like roots in search of water.

“It’s the most automatic yes ever,” said Bob Whitsitt, former president of both the Portland Trail Blazers in the NBA and Seattle Seahawks in the NFL. “And I think everybody is being sincere when they say character is important. If all things are equal, you would rather have the guy with character on your roster. It’s an easy answer.

“Now, what about when the talent is not equal? When it’s not even close. What then? I’ve been with (NBA) teams that have 12 character guys, where you’d want your daughter to marry every one of them. We didn’t win, and the seats were empty, and the sponsors didn’t want any part of us.”

In his nine seasons with the Blazers, beginning in 1994, Whitsitt’s teams averaged 50 wins and made the playoffs every year, maintaining a streak of postseason appearances that stretched for 21 years. They were known more for their characters than their character. He concedes that they had their off-court issues, including six players arrested from 2001 to 2002. Yet the Blazers sold out every game in the 19,980-seat Rose Garden for every year he was there.

Fans forgave the transgressions, or forgot them once the team ran off a string of eight wins.

“I think most fans understand that rotten apples pop up in every profession — doctors, lawyers and CEOs — and they’ve experienced those in their own lives,” said Atlanta Hawks and Thrashers co-owner Bruce Levenson. “So the notion that a rotten apple would pop up on a team or in a league, and that it would cause fans en masse to turn against that team or league, that’s probably contrary to reality.

“In the moment, people may say, ‘I’m not going to support those guys anymore.’ But, once the moment passes, people say, ‘Wait a minute, none of us should be throwing stones. We all live in glass houses.’”

That may have been the case when the moment lasted a moment. But when they start running together, a rough week begets a bad month. A couple of those make for a brutal offseason. And then the pundits are talking about an image crisis.

If character and behavior matter to fans, you’d think this summer would have pushed them to the point of saying enough is enough.

In a survey commissioned by SportsBusiness Journal of 1,097 adults taken early in July by Turnkey Sports & Entertainment, many fans said that an athlete’s character, behavior and image affect both their feelings and their buying habits (see methodology, page 21). The news is worst for wayward athletes, but there’s significant fallout for all who orbit them.

Among the findings:

78 percent said that negative “image, character and/or behavior” of an athlete negatively affected their affinity for that player.

58 percent said it affected their affinity for the athlete’s team.

42 percent said it affected their affinity for the athlete’s league.

45 percent said it affected their affinity for the athlete’s sponsors.

Avid fans, who accounted for 39 percent of the survey’s responses, express their disfavor a bit more strongly than casual fans. The avid fans, who typically represent the core of the consumer base, say they feel strongly enough to act.

52 percent said a tarnished image would cause them to watch fewer games.

44 percent said it would cause them to buy fewer tickets.

47 percent said they’d buy less merchandise.

41 percent said they’d shy away from sponsors’ products.

These are the sort of numbers that warn of impending doom for those sucked into this summer’s character vortex. Character-minded fans may not make up a clear majority, but there are enough of them to take a bite out of a business.

But history provides enough contradictory evidence to fill a wall of filing cabinets.

Consider the lesson of the Cincinnati Bengals, the team that became the poster child for athlete misbehavior until a certain quarterback in Atlanta blew all others off the wall.

This is worth going through in some detail. The specifics lend perspective. Once you’re through with them, you’ll find the tally of what it all cost the Bengals in hard, business metrics.

It might surprise you. It might not.

Nine Bengals players were arrested in the 14-month span that began in December 2005. Many faced the sort of “boys will be boys” charges that most fans will accept as youthful lapses in judgment.

Odell Thurman, Deltha O’Neal and Chris Henry were hit with DUIs, and Henry also was arrested on charges of marijuana possession. Eric Steinbach was charged with a boating DUI. Matthias Askew got frisky with police when they tried to make him move his illegally parked car. Reggie McNeal was charged with resisting arrest after a police officer accused him of elbowing him in the chest. Quincy Wilson and some friends were arrested on charges of disorderly conduct when a wedding party got out of hand. Police also booked the bride and groom.

It happens.

But the list also included offenses that go beyond indiscretion or irresponsibility, crossing well into criminal.

It starts with Henry, who was one of the first casualties of the NFL’s new, toughened conduct policy. Henry will miss the first eight games of the season after he was arrested five times in three states in a span of 15 months.

In December 2005, Henry was arrested in nearby Covington, Ky., on charges of marijuana possession. He pleaded guilty. A month later he was jailed in Orlando after police said he emerged from a limousine brandishing a loaded 9 mm Luger and aimed it into a crowd. Again, he pleaded guilty. Then, in June 2006, he was busted twice, first for the DUI and then for providing alcohol to three underage girls — ages 18, 16 and 15 — in a motel room. In March of this year, Henry was stopped for an illegal turn while driving on a suspended license. Police impounded his Escalade.

The Bengals also had two members of their 2006 rookie class make headlines.

A month after the Bengals took him in the fifth round of the draft, linebacker A.J. Nicholson was charged with breaking into a college teammate’s apartment and stealing more than $1,700 worth of stuff, including a computer, an Xbox system and some Nikes. The Bengals stood by him through the felony conviction. But, in May, Nicholson was charged with domestic violence. Though his girlfriend recanted, the Bengals had had enough. The team released him.

Frostee Rucker, a third-round pick out of Southern Cal, also was in trouble in his first month as a Bengal. He pleaded guilty to reduced charges after an ex-girlfriend accused him of domestic violence.

Nicholson and Rucker both entered that draft with not only question marks, but exclamation points, in the character column. Nicholson was in trouble several times while at Florida State University. Rucker had been charged with sex crimes three separate times, dating back to when he was 13. He was acquitted once and pleaded down the other two.

Every team in the NFL knew the background of both players. The Bengals took them anyway.

“It’s a fact that we’re dealing with human beings and that we all are multifaceted; good points and bad points,” Bengals owner Mike Brown explained in a message he left on an SBJ reporter’s voicemail. “And there’s good in all these guys, even those who fall through the cracks. We’d like to think that they can come back, and most times they do. Sometimes they don’t.”

A string of Cincinnati Bengals arrests gave
opposing fans plenty of sign material.

Many around the league felt some sympathy for Bengals ownership when the run of misdeeds began. There but for the grace of God go I. But, when the front office came off all that very public and embarrassing tomfoolery and still drafted players who other teams shied away from, that sympathy evaporated.

Based on what fans said in our survey, you would expect a similar response from Bengals denizens, who have voted with their wallets many times before. When the team went into the tank in 2002, losing 14 games, it ended the season in front of the three smallest crowds of its seven years at Paul Brown Stadium.

So, here are those business metrics we promised you. Ready to calculate the damage?

Last season, amid all the off-field problems, the Bengals had their best year at the gate ever, averaging 65,984. They ran their sellout streak to 28 games. In the last 38 TV ratings weeks that included a Bengals game, it was the top-rated show in the market. The team started this year with a waiting list for season tickets for the second year in a row, a significant feat in a market that would never be confused with Green Bay or Chicago. All 114 private suites are sold out. Bengals jersey sales ranked third in the NFL.

Apparently, those who could not forgive a 14-loss season found it easier to stomach an identical number of arrests.

“I’m sure fans want all the players to be as strong and good as possible,” Brown said. “We want to admire these people. We don’t want them to have blemishes. But I think to some degree, fans understand that players are people, too.”

Alan Ostfield, the chief operating officer and assistant GM of a Detroit Pistons franchise that once billed itself as the “Bad Boys,” describes character as an essential piece of the locker-room equation, but as only one of many factors that influence consumers. Just as some will only buy a car made in the U.S., or will patronize companies that are environmentally friendly, consumers place different levels of emphasis on the character of a player or team.

“Some people are going to let wins and losses massage out the character issues,” Ostfield said. “And some are going to buy into a team that loses more than they’d like, because they respect that the guys play hard or they’re well thought of in the community. It’s all very individual.”

It’s also cumulative. While there certainly are some crimes or character missteps so severe that a single incident can carry severe repercussions — Vick’s for example, could be one — most executives say fans will be more forgiving of a franchise that has cultivated its reputation in the community.

Sullivan, the Falcons’ chief marketer, draws the analogy of a checking account. Each positive experience it delivers for a fan or positive image that it projects to its consumers is a deposit. “I think we’ve built up the equity over the years,” Sullivan said. As a result, perhaps the team can afford a withdrawal.

“People can make mistakes,” said Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay, whose organization has become synonymous with high-character players under the watch of its head coach, Tony Dungy. “A player can get off the reservation. But if corrective action is taken by the organization and the league, people respect that. That goes a long way toward accountability.”

That’s the drum that many in the NFL have been beating since baptized-under-fire Commissioner Roger Goodell and the players union agreed on a tightened code of conduct in March. The league can’t deny the arrest numbers or hide from the ugly glare of the Vick indictment. What it can do is take action against the offenders.

“I think leagues and teams can be badly hurt if they’re not perceived as being proactive and taking steps to address issues,” said Dick Cass, president of the Baltimore Ravens. “It’s very difficult to build a loyal fan base if you’re seen as a team or league that simply doesn’t care about character.”

Cass emphasized the word loyal.

“The fans will stick with you when you’re winning, probably,” he said. “What you really want is for fans to stick with you when you’re losing. If you don’t address character issues, you’re not going to have that.”

What fans want

Ron Tonkin is one of the nation’s more influential auto dealers, a former president of the National Auto Dealers Association, with 16 locations across Portland. He has held season tickets to Trail Blazers games since the team was founded and was one of the first to lease a suite when the Rose Garden opened.

When the Blazers were appearing regularly on the police blotter earlier this decade, earning their now familiar, penitentiary-themed nickname, Tonkin was president of the NADA’s political action committee. He spent much of his time lobbying on Capitol Hill.

“I used to hate going back there to Washington, D.C., and having people clear across the United States say, ‘How are your Jail Blazers doing?’” Tonkin said when reached earlier this month. “I’m born and raised here. I hated like the dickens to hear that word: Jail Blazers. It got to be a really, really tough thing to accept.”

Two months into the 2002 season, after Damon Stoudamire and Rasheed Wallace were charged with marijuana possession and Ruben Patterson was accused of domestic abuse, Tonkin responded with a letter to the Portland newspaper, the Oregonian, that became a touchpoint for others who were frustrated with either players’ conduct, the team missing the playoffs or a combination of both.

“I, for one, have had it,” Tonkin wrote. “The Blazers are a disgrace. … For what roles is this team supposed to be a model?”

Tonkin went on to write that he could not wait for the lease to expire on his suite. Once a valued perk for customers and the best of his 700 employees, he complained that he no longer could come close to filling it. As promised, he did not renew.

“People are human and are going to make mistakes,” said Tonkin, who has retained his two courtside seats and now credits the Blazers’ front office for cleaning up its act. “Sports aficionados will put up with that to a point. But when you reach the saturation point, people have had it up to their forehead. Enough is enough. And then they rebel.

“It wasn’t just me. My god, it affected season tickets, it affected boxes that were sold, it affected a lot of things.”

In a two-year span, a franchise that once could claim the toughest ticket in pro basketball fell to the bottom of the league attendance chart. The Blazers’ season-ticket base dropped from more than 10,000 to fewer than 2,000. Suites sat vacant. Local TV ratings plummeted, taking the price of sponsorships with them.

While many like to point to the revolt against the Jail Blazers image as the reason, as Tonkin did, the decline in attendance and TV ratings line up more closely with the Blazers’ tumbling winning percentage than with any spikes in police-blotter activity.

“To tell you the truth, I didn’t lose one sponsor that said I’m not renewing directly because of the problems,” said Sarah Mensah, the Trail Blazers’ senior vice president of marketing and sales, who has worked for the team since 1993 and headed corporate sales from ’97 to ’06. “I heard, ‘Your ratings are declining.’ Or, ‘Value is not where it should be.’”

Harry Hutt, now a senior executive with the Tampa Bay Lightning, served as senior vice president of marketing and then COO while with the Trail Blazers from 1996 to 2002. He said the team sometimes had to talk sponsors off the ledge when players landed in trouble during his tenure, but that it never lost them.

“The struggles came when the team started to decline on the court,” Hutt said. “The honest to goodness truth is people want performance. They want a winner. When they have that, there’s a tendency to turn your head from behavior that they wouldn’t tolerate if it was in their neighborhood.

“It’s like the greater good is being competitive and winning games.”

Like most executives, Hutt says he thinks character is important. But he stresses that it rarely has an impact on business until a team starts to perform poorly. That’s when its reputation in the community — they may be losing, but they play hard and they’re good guys — helps sustain the fan base while it rebuilds.

“Everybody wants to root for good guys, so you can hang your hat on that and people will stick with you for a little while,” Hutt said. “But if those guys can’t win games, the whole good-character thing wears thin.

“Yeah, they’re good guys, but I’m not thrilled with them, quite frankly, because I’m paying $100 a game and I want the team to win.”

After Whitsitt resigned to focus on owner Paul Allen’s other team, the Seattle Seahawks, he was replaced by Steve Patterson, who immediately sent the message that the Blazers would increase their emphasis on character when he fined Stoudamire $250,000 for an arrest on misdemeanor drug charges at a Tucson, Ariz., airport. It was mostly cosmetic. Fines for matters like that are handled by the league. Patterson rescinded it. But he figured he was sending a message to the team, and to the market. The Blazers would be Jail Blazers no longer.

He soon traded Wallace and Bonzi Wells, both of whom stirred controversy during their stay. The losses that ensued as Patterson blew up the roster cost the Blazers millions at the box office. But for some, it resonated.

“Nobody is bashing the Blazers today, certainly not me,” Tonkin said. “It’s OK to criticize something when it deserves criticism, but you should also give plaudits when plaudits are due. I like where they’re going.”

Even after a season in which they posted the worst record in the league, the Blazers are surrounded by optimism, buoyed by two promising drafts, the last of which brought the No. 1 pick, Greg Oden.

Mensah points to double-digit increases “across all business lines,” including moves from the bottom five in the league in some categories back into the top 10.

If the Blazers are on their way to a resurgence, Patterson won’t be there to see it. Allen did not pick up the option on his contract earlier this year.

“When I was there we won a bunch of games and we sold out a bunch of games,” Whitsitt said. “When I left they said we’re going to focus on character, and they had the lowest attendance in the NBA. They had the lowest attendance in the NBA because they haven’t made the playoffs since, playing in the same great market.

“You have to win. There hasn’t been a GM yet who gets fired and says, ‘But I had really good guys, and they say, ‘Let’s keep him employed.’”

Character assessment

Much of what a talent evaluator looks for in a player is measurable. A 4.4 time in the 40. A 36-inch vertical leap. A 90-mph fastball. Each players’ performance is laid out in detail in a box score after every game.

Character is more difficult to measure. Sometimes, teams get it wrong.

In Portland, Wallace was billed as one of the NBA’s leading head cases; talented, but volatile, with a volcanic temper. Technical fouls, ejections and suspensions often overshadowed his skills. When he was charged with marijuana possession while driving home from a game with teammate Stoudamire, he earned a catchy nickname: Rashweed.

Then, he was traded to Atlanta and, after one game, to the Detroit Pistons. Joe Dumars, Pistons president of basketball operations, believed Wallace could flourish in the right environment. Those he trusted around the league said they agreed.

Dumars took a chance on him, and Wallace repaid him by providing the missing piece that led to a championship in 2004. Still with the Pistons, his character issues seem to have evaporated.

“You take a guy who is perceived — and the key word is perceived — to not really be of good character, and he comes over here and he’s thought to be of good character,” Ostfield said. “Joe has done a fantastic job at getting (the right) guys and putting them in a good environment.”

The acquisition of Wallace was the sort of gamble that tempts most owners and executives. “Going for the bait,” Irsay calls it, reaching back for a phrase he heard often when he also was GM. Some are more willing to take the risk than others.

Levenson, the co-owner of the Hawks and Thrashers, tells the story of a meeting in which the NBA team discussed acquiring an undeniably talented player who had landed in trouble while with other teams.

Levenson suggested to GM Billy Knight that since the Hawks had so many stable players in their locker room, they might be able to keep a volatile one in check, or even turn him around. Knight disagreed, fearing this particular ticking bomb might blow up what they were trying to build.

“We’ve actually had that conversation a couple of times now and, so far, we’ve erred on the side of character,” Levenson said. “When you’re considering somebody, you really have to look at the body of work or the body of misdeeds. I certainly believe in giving people second chances and understanding that young guys make mistakes. I just think there are different degrees to that.”

Irsay, a recovering addict, stresses that athletes make mistakes, like all people, and deserve a chance to prove they’ve learned from them. That’s his philosophy as a person. But when it comes time to make a decision on a draft pick or free agent, he says he is hesitant to take a risk on a player who might bring along baggage.

“Having been around 36 years and seeing so many cases, I’m not in favor very often of taking the chance, even if we don’t have a high pick or a lot of money committed,” Irsay said. “They take up roster spots. They take up the time of the coaches. And you can really be let down. Unless they’ve gone through a major change, the behavior comes back over the long haul.

“For the most part, it’s a risky proposition. I think you’re really setting yourself up if you do take that chance.”

Those who take more chances on character argue that they do so only after extensive investigation and study. But can you ever really know?

Dumars was right about Wallace. The Falcons, who assign separate letter grades for football character and off-field character to every player on their roster and each collegian they scout, were wrong about Vick.

“I have really good financial controls, and still I’ve had people inside of my business embezzle from me,” Levenson said. “You try your hardest and do your due diligence, and we all still make mistakes.”

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