|Wednesday, June 4
Updated: June 8, 9:34 AM ET
Sosa left to pick up the pieces
By Darren Rovell
With a smile that grew wider than his bulging biceps, Sammy Sosa became larger than life, an international superstar whose towering home runs and effervescent enthusiasm were once credited with saving baseball. But can a corked bat cause his popularity to fizzle and leave a bitter taste in the mouths of sports marketing executives who once so eagerly sought the Chicago Cubs slugger for lucrative endorsement deals?
Sosa, among the game's most prolific home run hitters and one of its most dynamic personalities off the field, was caught using a corked bat during Tuesday night's game at Wrigley Field. Fragments of his shattered bat showed signs of tampering and Sosa may be left to pick up the pieces.
"If there are more bats with cork out there, it's about cheating the game, cheating the fans and breaking the rules, and that's going to be tough to overcome," said Scott Becher, president of Sports & Sponsorships, a sports marketing firm.
Some sports marketing insiders believe the incident could place doubt in the minds of fans and may prevent companies from using Sosa to pitch products in the future. Others believe that if Sosa is cleared of additional wrongdoing his image won't take a long-term hit.
"Don't underestimate the forgiveness of the American public," said Mark Leonard, president of Integrated Marketing Solutions, which coordinated Sosa's marketing deals during 1998-2001. "This might be the eye of the hurricane right now and it gives everybody some fodder to talk about for the next week, but then I think it will die down. And maybe there's some cork manufacturer out there ready to do an endorsement deal, although I know Sammy would never take something like that."
History shows that Sosa has bounced back from attacks on his image in the past. His foundation was investigated by Florida's attorney general and the Internal Revenue Service for the alleged misappropriation of funds. Sosa eventually made a $126,000 payment to the foundation before closing it.
"Sammy has shown that his image is very resilient, so much so that it's almost Clinton-like," said Becher, referring to former President Bill Clinton's teflon-like ability to shed controversy. "He had issues with his foundation, they made headlines and he was able to fix the problem and overcome it."
Thanks to his legendary home run race with Mark McGwire in 1998 -- which is credited with helping baseball recover from the image hit the sport sustained during the strike-shortened 1994 season -- Sosa earned about $10 million in endorsements in the following seasons. Marketing deals were struck with Pepsi, Mastercard, Fila, Fujifilm, McDonald's and Kmart. Sosa also had his own line of sunglasses, and his licensed cereal grossed more than $1 million in sales in the Chicago area.
"Starting in early August of that year, I would get 15 phone calls a day and about 10 faxes a day pitching me various offers," Leonard said. "For every deal we took, there were many deals we turned down. We probably left about $5 million on the table."
Although he eventually lost the home-run race to McGwire, Sosa was considered the safer bet in the eyes of many marketers, because McGwire admitted to using Androstenedione, an over-the-counter testosterone-booster that was legal for play, but considered questionable by many.
"Marketers are very careful about who they are attaching their brand to," said Jack Birch, president and CEO of Woolf Associates, a sports and event marketing agency. "Many of them will rather go with an athlete who has less of an upside but a limited downside, instead of the athlete with a great upside who is considered a risk. Now it's possible that when a brand manager goes to his boss and says they're considering signing Sammy Sosa, he'll have some things to explain. The boss might say, 'Can't we find someone else because isn't he the guy who had the incident with the bat?' "
"Instead of going with Sammy a company is more likely to take a look at current players with less risk, retired players or consider going to a different sport to find their next endorser," said Bob Williams, president of Burns Sports, a Chicago-based sports marketing firm.
It is unclear how companies that currently have deals with Sosa will react in the future.
"We'll see how the situation plays out," said Dave DeCecco, spokesman for Pepsi, which signed Sosa to a new deal in March and currently is running a national television commercial featuring Sosa and Jason Giambi, the New York Yankees' slugger.
Having a corked bat likely is not a violation of the standard morals clause that allow companies to terminate endorsement contracts with players, Birch said. DeCecco would not comment on terms of Sosa's deal with Pepsi.
Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org