Sports, performance-enhancing drugs, and the supremacy of marketing

Sports, performance-enhancing drugs and the supremacy of marketing
Courtesy stevepb

I watched a YouTube video last week of a conversation between Mark Cuban, Malcolm Gladwell, and Bill Simmons. It was an extended cut of Bill Simmons’ HBO show, Any Given Wednesday. The guys discussed performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs), first in the context of the Olympics, then more broadly.

A quick recap of the PED debate

I found two of Mark Cuban’s comments particularly interesting. First, he claims there is no evidence that shows human growth hormone (HGH) helps or hurts athletic performance. He was clear about this. No evidence whatsoever. He has commissioned a study at the University of Michigan to try to answer this question.

I find that claim interesting, because HGH is a central feature of the PED debate. HGH was the focus of the Peyton Manning rumors from earlier this year. The fact that, supposedly, we don’t even know whether it affects athletic performance boggles my mind. 

Second, during the conversation Cuban seems to propose a system where steroids are legal in sports, but they must be administered by a professional. He says that steroids, on their face, aren’t bad. They’re used for extraordinary medical benefit today. The difference with sports, though, is that athletes self-administer these drugs, because the drugs are banned. Unsupervised, unprofessional drug administration is problematic, to say the least.

Now, Malcolm Gladwell is the purist. During the conversation, he focuses on a sport he’s fascinated by: track and field. He responds to Cuban by saying that we can all agree that putting a needle in your arm is different than, say, training at altitude. The advantage of training at altitude is that it helps your body absorb oxygen more efficiently. You could take a drug, or drugs, with a similar effect. But for Gladwell, the bright line is the injection of a foreign substance into your body.

Gladwell is quick to admit there’s a massive gray area here. Take the case of HGH. It’s in your body already. Different people have different HGH concentrations. Injecting HGH creates further variation from person to person, but we already had natural variations to begin with. What’s the big deal?

I won’t go further with the argument. You can see how it unfolds. There’s an element of the debate built around medical science. There’s an element built around fairness. There’s an element built around hard work versus shortcuts.

This debate is built on narrative, not science

These debates tend to unfold rationally. We construct arguments that are rigorous, consistent, and intellectually honest. We argue about the meaning of sports, what value it offers, and how we can build an infrastructure that offers maximum pleasure.

The problem is, the argument isn’t built on science. It’s built on narrative. The distinctions about whether these drugs are or aren’t naturally-occurring aren’t helpful. The distinctions between needle injections versus training at higher altitudes aren’t helpful. The distinctions between whether PEDs only help recovery or enhance peak performance aren’t helpful.

The core of the issue is the story. What story do we want to tell ourselves about sports? As you’d expect, different people tell themselves different stories. As a result, different people come down on PEDs and sports in different ways.

Say you tell yourself this story about sports. Sports is about natural athletic achievement. Sports is about finding, and rewarding, the people who can most effectively combine natural-born talent with discipline and hard work. If that’s your story, you likely want to ban PEDs.

It doesn’t matter that we allow acetaminophen for recovery, but we don’t allow HGH or a host of other drugs or supplements. What matters is the perception that the results came from talent plus hard work. We can better protect that perception by banning what we define as PEDs.

Now say you tell yourself this story about sports. Sports is a form of engineering. Sports is about finding the pinnacle of human achievement, regardless how the performance is achieved. If that’s your story, you’re likely in favor of allowing PEDs, in some form or fashion.

With this story, you do care about our arbitrary and irrational system of managing PEDs. You don’t respect the false distinctions we draw between substances. You don’t want to penalize only the players that got caught, knowing there are always players that don’t get caught.

Marketing sets the terms of customer engagement

Let’s move this discussion over to marketing. Which story do you think sports leagues want you to tell yourself? The first one. Hands down. Sports leagues or federations know the marketing pull of the talent plus hard work formula is stronger than the human engineering formula. For a bunch of reasons, most people find sports more compelling when you strip out the PED influence, even though it’s impossible to do.

Marketers know that success of a brand is based on its ability to drive a story with customers. With Coca-Cola, the story is that drinking Coke makes you happy. With Disney, the story is that its films and theme parks offer fun-filled family adventures. With Nike, the story is that wearing Nike gear helps you achieve your goals. With Tesla, the story is that driving their car affords you a cool sophistication.

That’s why sports leagues do, or at least should, care about PEDs. PEDs screw up their story. Badly. 

Most conversations about sports and PEDs are focused on the final product, on the games that fans watch. The debates are often about the integrity of the game itself, and the health of the athletes. Those elements are important, but they’re academic. 

At the end of the day, sports leagues are commercial enterprises. Their success is built on fan engagement. While the assumed integrity of the game matters, and while protecting the health of athletes matters, the root of fan engagement is story.

What story is the fan telling herself about the game? What’s the story surrounding the athletes, the existing records, the crowning of new champions? Marketing drives those stories. 

The same rules apply to all businesses. It’s easy to get lost in the weeds of product features and service upgrades. Zoom out for a bit. Why are customers buying? What’s the story they’re telling themselves? What story would you prefer they tell themselves? And how can you make decisions that support the preferred story?

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