Will there be a Biogenesis backlash?
The players who were suspended by Major League Baseball for their links to the now-shuttered anti-aging clinic have only just begun to serve their punishments—well, except for one of them—but it's fair to wonder just how much of an impact, if any, the latest performance-enhancing drug scandal will have on the sport from an attendance and viewership perspective.
It's obviously too soon to tell based on just the few days' worth of games since the suspensions were announced Monday, but there are a few things to consider.
For one, there's the any-publicity-is-good-publicity aspect when it comes to Alex Rodriguez, who finally recovered from offseason hip surgery and a recent quad strain to make his season debut for the New York Yankees on Monday.
On Monday alone, the White Sox sold more than 3,200 tickets, according to Jon Greenberg of ESPN Chicago, who reported that a team representative indicated the club typically sells a "couple hundred" tickets on game days.
The overall crowd was announced at 27,948, which is nearly 5,000 more fans in the seats compared to the average attendance at U.S. Cellular Field heading into that game.
Of course, some of that simply can be chalked up to the Yankees, a team that always draws well on the road, being in town.
Still, it's hard to argue that there's at least some intrigue that comes along with getting a chance to see—and boo, as many White Sox fans did— the game's highest-paid player who's on the field amid his appeal of the 211-game ban.
The same thing proved true when Rodriguez was making his way through Trenton, home of the Yankees' Double-A affiliate, during his rehab assignment, as Josh Leventhal of Baseball America reported:
Over 16,000 spectators turned out for Rodriguez’s two rehab starts, about 4,000 more than the team normally expects on busy Friday and Saturday nights.
This rubbernecking effect could carry on for as long as A-Rod continues to play this year. Considering he's expected to play through the rest of the season because his appeal is unlikely to be heard before then, per Paul White of USA Today, the circus-like atmosphere could certainly keep folks coming out to the ballpark.
Early indications are that the same could apply to television viewers, too.
Here's what Bob Raissman of the New York Daily News reported on Rodriguez's return meant for the YES Network, which is the Yankees' broadcast station:
Hours after being suspended by Major League Baseball, the season debut of A-Rod on the Yankees Entertainment & Sports Network recorded the outlet’s highest rating of the season. Yankees-White Sox averaged a 4.34 rating, topping the 4.16 rating YES registered with Yankees-Mets on May 27.
And it wasn't just the Yankees' local programming network that benefited, as Raissman wrote:
The Rodriguez factor also worked in ESPN’s favor. It’s Dodgers-Cardinals “Monday Night Baseball” telecast did a 1.0 overnight rating, ESPN’s highest “MNB” rating of the season. During that telecast, ESPN cut live to every A-Rod at-bat in Chicago.
But enough on A-Rod, right? After all, this scandal is about more than just one player.
To that end, baseball fans might find it a little disheartening that the PED-related problems from the past two decades did seem to have some negative affect on attendance figures.
Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated looked into the data back in 2011 and found the following:
Do you know what happened after 1998, when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa staged their home run race and Barry Bonds turned to better baseball through chemistry? Attendance went down the next year. It went down three of the next five years after 1998.
Steroids didn't "save" baseball in the post-strike years. It wasn't until 2006 -- three seasons into drug testing with penalties -- that baseball returned to its pre-strike attendance level (30,964 per game in 1993).
In fact, attendance in all seven seasons of The Testing Era (2004-10) has been better than in any of the nine Steroid Era seasons between the strike and testing (1995-2003).
So the homer-happiness that happened in the late 1990s and early 2000s didn't actually bring about an increase in attendance, as many like to think. Hmmm. Fans may have been aware, to some extent, that something fishy was going on with all of the big-bodied sluggers, but it's not as if there was some sort of the-sky-is-falling downturn, either.
Plus, baseball is as popular now, attendance-wise, as it ever has been, according to 2012's report from MLB.com, so there's been a full recovery—and then some—over the past 10 years:
MLB’s 2,423 dates [during the 2012 season] garnered an average of 30,895 fans per game, up from 30,362 per game in 2011. The 2012 attendance total ranks behind only the 2007 (1st), 2008 (2nd), 2006 (3rd) and 2005 (4th) seasons. Overall, the last nine years are now the nine best-attended seasons in the history of Major League Baseball, including the four successive record-breaking seasons from 2004-2007.
That's all fine and dandy, but what about 2013?
If you're wondering about this season, in the wake of the Biogenesis bombshell that broke back in January, consider a quick-and-dirty comparison, courtesy of Baseball Reference's attendance tracker:
- In 2012, 13 teams drew at least 30,000 fans per game.
- In 2013, 17 clubs are drawing at least 30,000 fans per game.
Again, we can't make any real conclusions from all this—it's just too soon—but now this is something to monitor for the rest of this season. And beyond.
But even if there winds up being no discernible difference or disparity from recent years—even if there is no such thing as a Biogenesis backlash—perhaps it's because, as Bill Briggs of CNBC pointed out, baseball fans are used to all this by now.
In other words, when it comes to players getting busted for PEDs, it's been-there-done-that for fans, who very well may keep going to games and tuning in on television.