There’s no arguing that the Houston Astros’ sign-stealing scandal has been a black eye for MLB: three managers have seen their contracts terminated, the Astros received unprecedented sanctions from the League Office and more allegations — like the one accusing José Altuve or wearing a buzzer under his uniform — seem to be coming forth every week. All that said, the timing of the scandal may actually have a silver lining for pro baseball.
At a time of year when ESPN and Fox’s talking heads should almost exclusively be discussing Patrick Mahomes, Tyreek Hill, Jimmy Garoppolo and George Kittle ahead of the Super Bowl, they’re instead also talking about Carlos Beltran, Alex Cora, AJ Hinch, Altuve and the rest of the MLB managers and players who’ve been linked with stealing signs.
For the first time in a long time, baseball is making headlines during its offseason — and that’s a good thing for a game that is increasingly slipping into the background of the sports landscape.
Would it be better if sports pundits were talking about MLB because it was an especially busy winter filled with blockbuster trades and intriguing free-agent acquisitions? Of course, but the fact of the matter is that MLB’s hot stove has grown colder than Baltimore Orioles first baseman Chris Davis at the plate in April.
For a league that has seen its attendance drop more than seven percent since 2015 and is a distant third in water-cooler conversations behind the NFL and NBA, any publicity might be good publicity.
For proof that negative publicity can actually be good for business, MLB has to look no further than the NFL, a league that has been rocked by a variety of recent offseason scandals — including, in no particular order, Ray Rice knocking out his fiancée, Tom Brady appearing in front of the U.S. Court of Appeals about deflated footballs, Colin Kaepernick being blackballed for his politics, Panthers owner Jerry Richardson being accused of sexual misconduct, Antonio Brown running amok at Raiders’ training camp and Adrian Peterson beating his son with a switch — yet has seen its TV ratings rise to a three-year high.
Though its season only runs from the beginning of September to the first weekend in February, the NFL has made itself into a year-round sport and the league’s dirty laundry, for better or worse, is an undeniable piece of that. It’s ample proof that scandals don’t necessarily harm a sports’s bottom line; on the contrary, fans seem to embrace reading and reacting to off-field skulduggery. The closer sports resemble reality-TV programs, it seems, the better.
After all, do you think the Yankees will have any trouble selling tickets when the Astros — the team New York fans believe snatched a World Series berth from the Bronx Bombers by stealing signs in 2017 and 2019 — come to town in 2020? Not likely, as Yankees fans will be champing at the bit to welcome Altuve and the rest of his teammates into the stadium with a deluge of jeers and boos.
If the attention MLB’s signal-stealing scandal has generated nationally is any indication, there will be plenty of similarly jaded fans in Los Angeles, Tampa Bay and other markets that saw their home teams fall victim to the disgraced Texas team. And you can expect the same when the Red Sox — who a Los Angeles City Council believes should vacate their 2018 World Series win for cheating — take on the Dodgers.
Baseball games have rarely been appointment viewing on a national level since Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were chasing the single-season home run record in 1998 and Barry Bonds was doing the same thing three years later. And just like the steroids scandals that cropped up in the wake of those seasons, you can expect the sign-stealing scandal to breathe some renewed interest into MLB when things kick off this spring.