SBJ/September 19-25, 2011/Opinion

Could MLB have avoided 9/11 tribute controversy?

Major League Baseball strongly believes it is held to a far higher level of scrutiny than other sports. One could go down a list of sports business stories over the last decade where MLB firmly feels it was forced to face the press while other leagues skated free of such coverage. Whether it be the perception of its leadership, on-field marketing (remember Spider-Man?) or, most significantly, performance-enhancing drugs in sports, MLB executives I’ve talked to believe there is an imbalance in today’s media, SportsBusiness Journal/Daily included, in holding baseball to a different standard.

It might be baseball’s historical place in American culture; perhaps it’s the older-skewing media who cover the sport and cling to its traditions. Whatever the reason, it rankles MLB executives, so I had to wonder how MLB felt last week, when after the 9/11 tributes, there was a sense that the NFL got it right (in both ceremony and in waiving its rules to allow for commemorative 9/11 on-field cleats and gloves), while MLB was forced to answer questions about why the New York Mets couldn’t wear FDNY hats to mark the 10-year anniversary during their game on Sept. 11.

To me, the big difference was PR. The NFL announced its waiver and was met with praise on Twitter. Sports Illustrated’s Jimmy Traina tweeted: “Excellent job by the NFL. No fines for any player who wears patriotic shoes or gloves.” Bears kicker Robbie Gould tweeted: “Classy move by NFL.” MLB sent guidelines to teams, but in retrospect, it should have released them publicly. Instead, it was forced to react after Mets players publicly expressed their desire to wear the special FDNY caps for their nationally televised Sept. 11 game. ESPN’s Buster Olney tweeted: “Wish MLB would just let the Mets wear the FDNY, police, port authority hats in game. Special circumstance, and just the right thing to do.” The New York Daily News ran the headline, “Torre denies MLB ordered 9/11 cap ban,” and for days there was a back and forth between players and the league about how the situation was handled.

The irony is that MLB played a tremendous role in restoring America’s confidence post-9/11. For the commemoration, it wanted to recognize 9/11 with uniform “flag” caps. Instead, it dealt with stories about whether executives asked teams not to wear specific gear. This had to be infuriating. The NFL was praised; MLB was painted as “tone-deaf” and forced to deal with a story driven by the tabloids when it should have been more accurately portrayed as playing a leading role in patriotic pride.

Here’s where Twitter, Facebook and traditional PR could have helped MLB in proactively explaining its intentions. So while one can argue about a different set of standards, this also could have been avoided by more direct PR messaging.

Best wishes to outgoing Suns President Rick Welts, one of the most talented and effective business leaders in sports. Rick was scheduled to leave the Suns organization after nine years last week to relocate to Sacramento for personal reasons. Rarely is someone so respected and well-liked in his field, not just for his business talents but also for his kind nature. Here’s to hoping we haven’t seen the last of Rick’s contributions to sports and society.

A nod to sister publication SportsBusiness Daily, which last week turned the page on Volume 18 — marking 17 successful years of publishing. I believe Rick Welts may have been one of the first believers in SBD, which was launched by Jeffrey Pollack in the summer of 1994. I remember those early days in an Arlington, Va., townhouse, lucky to be learning from the talents of Pollack, David Abrutyn (now at IMG), Steve Bilafer (former SBJ columnist) and Chuck Todd (now NBC’s political director), all vital in creating a product they believed could benefit the sports business.

Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at amadkour@sportsbusinessjournal.com.


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