Cheaters Never Win and Winners Never Cheat… But Do They?

Springtime is a sign of hope and renewal in many ways: more daylight, blooming trees and flowers, and of course the return of America’s Pastime.  How many of us break into a little smile and see the end of winter approaching at the first sight of pitchers and catchers reporting to training camps in Florida and Arizona?  Yes, the return of baseball has that way of renewing those feelings of hope after a long winter, the promise of sunny skies on the way.  However, the last several weeks have brought uncertainty and conflict to Major League Baseball, storm clouds that have cast a lot of pessimism on the upcoming season. 

To set the stage: in recent years the Houston Astros have been a model franchise for creating the blueprint to rebuild a team from the ground up, setting the foundation for long-term success.  This brought a World Series championship in 2017 and another appearance in the fall classic last season.  As spring training begins, however, the Astros have become embroiled in a scandal that directly calls into question the legitimacy of that 2017 squad and the sustained success since.  A former member of the team brought to light allegations of in-game cheating, by using technology to steal signs that were in turn relayed to the hitter via banging on a trash can in the dugout.  The ensuing investigation by the Commissioner’s office resulted in severe penalties for many involved: the general manager and manager of the Astros were fired; the team also had to forfeit draft picks and pay a $5,000,000 fine.  The fallout even brought collateral damage to the Boston Red Sox and New York Mets, who responded by cutting ties with their managers who were also members of the 2017 World Champion Astros. 

To date, no players have been sanctioned despite clouds of suspicion swirling around them like a tornado, and many in the sport are not happy about this.  Should the penalties have been more severe, perhaps even to the point where the Astros get stripped of their title?  Even more importantly, what is the long-term impact on a sport, that while still very popular has faced mounting challenges staying relevant in a society with a thirst for constant action and instant gratification?  Will this cheating scandal deal yet another setback to those in the game tasked with finding new ways to appeal to the younger generations in particular? 

Perception means everything and getting a quick pulse among the general public is crucial in a situation such as this.  The CARAVAN Surveys Team, a division of ENGINE Insights, was curious and conducted a survey among 1,067 baseball fans during February 14 – 23 to determine how this controversy was sitting with them.  The results shed a lot of light on the frustration fans are feeling and suggest time will tell the story of just how damaging this scandal will be.  In a world where consumers need to think long and hard about where to allocate their hard-earned dollars and limited time, this could trigger a cascading set of negative consequences that impacts corporate sponsorships, television ratings, advertising revenue, and attending games to name a few.

For example, our survey findings established that one out of two (52%) baseball fans are now concerned about the general integrity of the game, and the clear majority (87%) say they are bothered by this specific incident.  In addition, a large majority (85%) view this as serious enough to agree it sets a very poor example to the younger audiences Major League Baseball is so desperately trying to appeal to. 

Our results indicate legitimate concerns specific to the upcoming season because of this scandal:

– 45% say they are looking forward to this season less than they normally would.

– 37% plan to pay less daily attention than normal, and 33% plan to watch fewer games.

– Significant amounts even agree the scandal would make them consider recommending a different sport for younger fans to follow (30%), or perhaps even consider no longer being a fan of MLB (26%).

– These concerns stand out even more among younger fans (those 18-39 years of age), with 41% and 33% agreeing with these sentiments.

– In addition, according to findings from ENGINE’s Cassandra, our youth and cultural experts, young consumers tell us they try to buy from and align themselves with their values (69%). And Gen Zs in particular value hard work and transparency.

There are likely still other shoes to drop before this scandal is resolved, but they’re also could be optimistic signs on the way for Major League Baseball due to new speculation on revising the playoff system.  Recent news reports indicate that within a few years the number of qualifying playoff teams may increase from 10 to 14, with intriguing new rules as to the selection of first-round playoff matchups.  We also examined this, and our survey findings indicate the preliminary plan is being embraced by baseball fans, with 62% seeing it as a good idea.  More interestingly, younger fans of MLB (18-39 years of age) are on board, with 76% seeing this as a good idea.  Could this new idea be what MLB needs to boost modern-day fan interest?

Baseball has seen its share of scandals and disappointment, some notable ones being the Black Sox and the 1919 World Series, Pete Rose gambling while being a manager, the cancellation of the 1995 World Series, and the use of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) by several prominent players.  Despite these challenges over the last century, the game has endured. Will it once again rise to the occasion and be the glue that binds family generations and fuels fun, healthy debates among friends during the dog days of summer?  Time will only tell, but one thing is for certain: any brand can find themselves in a situation such as this, where the pulse of the population is needed to address a crisis, gauge interest in new ideas and lay the groundwork for a better future. 

This is where CARAVAN Surveys from ENGINE Insights can help.  CARAVAN is the perfect tool to obtain quick, cost-efficient, reliable survey data when your brand needs it most.  Throughout the process, our team of survey experts is with you every step of the way to ensure you get maximum impact for your dollar.  Contact us today to learn more!

Written by Richard Tomasco, ​Vice President, CARAVAN  Omnibus surveys at ENGINE Insights.