The most compelling and potentially lucrative stretch of the New York Yankees’ schedule will be the return of a 38-year-old third baseman just handed the longest performance-enhancing drug ban in Major League Baseball history.
Alex Rodriguez made his season debut against the Chicago White Sox last night, five hours after being suspended without pay for 211 games following an investigation into a defunct Florida anti-aging clinic that allegedly supplied drugs to major-leaguers. Though 12 players linked to the inquiry yesterday accepted 50-game bans, Rodriguez chose to appeal his suspension and can play until the matter is resolved.
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With arbitration unlikely to conclude until October, the Yankees stand to see a short-term spike in television audiences, his return brought the team’s broadcast partner its best rating this season, and attendance during a season marked by injury and mediocrity. The team also will have operations nightmares as they try to keep emotions surrounding Rodriguez’s situation in check, sports marketers and media executives said.
“Welcome to Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Baseball,” said Andy Dolich, a consultant who’s worked in operations for all four major U.S. professional sports leagues. “You take a player that was paid a half-billion dollars and have him as a poster child for something that baseball would never want as a poster.”
Rodriguez, the three-time American League Most Valuable Player, went 1-for-4 last night at U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago in his first major-league game since a hip injury sidelined him since last October.
The game was seen in the New York market on the Yankees Entertainment & Sports Network, drawing an average of 4.3 percent of homes, according to the network. The previous high this season was a 4.2 average rating for a May 27 game between the Yankees and New York Mets. Last night’s contest peaked at an 8.2 average rating from 8:30 p.m. to 8:45 p.m. New York time as Rodriguez had his first at-bat.
Starting pitcher Andy Pettitte gave up seven runs in 2 2/3 innings last night as the Chicago White Sox won 8-1 to snap a 10-game losing streak. The Yankees (57-54) are fourth in the American League East, 9 1/2 games behind the division-leading Boston Red Sox.
The bans, which for Rodriguez would include the postseason, capped an investigation that began a year ago and came to light in January, when the Miami New Times said it received records from an ex-employee of Coral Gables, Florida-based Biogenesis of America LLC linking players to doping activity.
Hampered for much of the season by injuries to Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira and Curtis Granderson, New York is five games out of the final American League wild-card playoff spot, trailing the Cleveland Indians, Texas Rangers, Baltimore Orioles and Kansas City Royals.
As of July 25, ratings on YES were down 39 percent compared to last season. Through the first 54 games at Yankee Stadium this season, New York has drawn 173,000 fewer fans than it did at the same point last year. Its average of 39,977 fans per contest ranks fourth among baseball’s 30 teams after finishing second behind the Philadelphia Phillies in 2012. The last time the Yankees finished lower than second in average attendance was 2001, according to ESPN data.
To have Rodriguez playing, even temporarily, is “good for YES, which has under-delivered on advertising,” Leo Hindery, managing partner of InterMedia Partners LP who was chief executive officer of YES Network from 2001 to 2004, said in an interview. “There is a correlation between viewership and performance on the field.”
Increased ratings and walkup ticket sales would provide a “rounding error” in revenue gains for the Yankees, said Dolich, who works for the London-based executive search firm Odgers Berndtson.
“But if you got paid by the word, tweet, YouTube video or media review of this, it’s either the perfect storm or the imperfect storm, or maybe the perfectly imperfect storm,” Dolich said in a telephone interview.
New York returns to Yankee Stadium on Aug. 9 versus the Detroit Tigers. That three-game series is followed by a four-game home matchup with the Los Angeles Angels from Aug. 12 to 15, then a trip to Boston to face the division-rival Red Sox.
Resale ticket prices for Rodriguez’s home debut have risen 12 percent since July 31, to about $90, according to the secondary market ticket aggregator TiqIQ. The amount of seats available is down 21 percent, to about 9,400 since Aug. 4.
Handling expressions of anger and support toward Rodriguez and related security measures will be the “No. 1 focus of an operations team’s life” for both home and away games while the third baseman plays, said Dolich. His return to the field may even lead to protests outside ballparks, he said. “People are going to express themselves because of their constitutional right,” Dolich said. “The question is, how do you prohibit an escalation of emotions, outside of the stadium and inside?”
Rodriguez was booed as he stepped to the plate last night in Chicago after telling reporters the past seven months had been “a nightmare, probably the worst time of my life.” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said he isn’t conflicted about playing Rodriguez, because “you’re innocent until proven guilty.”
“There’s nothing about it that’s been easy,” Rodriguez said. “I’m fighting for my life. I have to defend myself. If I don’t defend myself, no one else will.”
The Yankees said yesterday in a statement that they support baseball’s drug-prevention program, recognize the appeals process and would have no further comment until it is complete.
Rodriguez is making $28 million this season and scheduled to make $25 million next season, meaning he would have forfeited about $33 million had he accepted the initial terms of the ban. He’s due $61 million from 2015 to 2017, and has $30 million in milestone incentives, $6 million each for matching career home-run totals of Willie Mays (660), Babe Ruth (714), Hank Aaron (755) and Barry Bonds (762), and when he sets a new mark. Rodriguez is stuck on 647 home runs as the Yankees, with a major-league high payroll of $228 million on opening day, try to get below $189 million next season to avoid luxury tax payments.
“It’s clear to me the team is not upset” about not having to pay Rodriguez if his appeal fails, Hindery said. “His value to them doesn’t match up with the dollars they owe him.”
The appeal, before arbitrator Frederic Horowitz, probably won’t be completed by the end of the regular season, Michael Weiner, executive director of the MLB Players Association, told reporters on a conference call yesterday.
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The union and Rodriguez say Commissioner Bud Selig overstepped his bounds when he used the collective bargaining agreement rather than the joint drug agreement to help set the length of the ban.
Baseball and the union created the appeals process “probably hoping they’d never see such a high-profile case,” said David Carter, executive director of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California.
“It’s going to be completely indelicate and a mess for everybody that’s involved but it’s the process that’s in place,” Carter said in a telephone interview. “Procedurally, both sides are entitled to be doing what they’re doing. It just makes both sides look bad along the way.”
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