Businesses will be less likely to invest in sport after positive doping tests by Tour de France winner Floyd Landis and Olympic champion Justin Gatlin, US marketing experts say.
"When this kind of thing happens, it is a downer for everybody, especially with track and field and cycling already having limited appeal in the rich American sports and entertainment market," said Bob Dorfman, executive creative director for Pickett Advertising in San Francisco.
"Fans will become more cynical and companies will wonder if athletes they might use for marketing are drug-free," Dorfman said in a telephone interview.
Businesses want a more positive rub-off, said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Centre at the University of Oregon.
"If all that is being covered in the sport is negative and rooted in drug scandals, why would a business want to invest in that," Swangard said via telephone from his Eugene, Oregon, office.
"I do not think Gatlin will destroy track and field," Swangard added.
But even in his hometown of Eugene, which bills itself as Track Town USA, residents are troubled by the 100 metres joint world record holder's positive test, he said.
Gatlin faces a life ban from track and field and Landis a two-year suspension if their positive tests for the banned male sex hormone testosterone are determined to be doping offenses.
The issue of Gatlin's positive test is a grave one, USA Track & Field (USATF) chief executive officer Craig Masback said.
"No one who loves the sport can be happy about events that undermine the credibility of the sport," Masback said in an e-mail to Reuters.
"But the place of track and field in the Olympic Games withstood the Ben Johnson (doping) scandal and BALCO (scandal) and it will withstand this development," he said.
Both the number of USATF sponsors and total sponsor dollars have grown since the BALCO scandal, he said.
Nike and Hershey's, two of the federation's key sponsors, will continue their support, a spokesmen said. Both have financial ties to Gatlin.
"They (doping allegations in general) have not changed our position within the sport or our interest in being involved in this sport and those governing bodies," said Nike spokesman Dean Stoyer.
IAAF spokesman Nick Davies would not speculate on the impact of Gatlin's case.
But he said the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) had not lost a single sponsorship partner because of doping during the BALCO and Athens Olympics scandals in 2003 and 2004.
The federation spends 2.5 million dollars annually in its fight against doping, he said.
"The bigger the name, the worse publicity we get," Davies said in an e-mail. "But what is the alternative?"
Paul Doyle, manager of Jamaican 100 metres co-world record holder Asafa Powell, said he believed sponsorships and meets would be affected by positive tests.
"Over the past decade to 15 years, the amount of money in the sport for prize money and appearance fees has dropped," Doyle said.
"But the difference is that shoe contracts are a lot higher. So the top athletes are making more now than they did in the '90s, it's just a larger percentage is coming from the shoe companies."
For athletes to boost their income even higher they need contracts with sponsors outside of shoe companies, Doyle said.
"Those are the type of sponsors that are really going to be scared by something like this," Doyle said.
The impact will be even greater on cycling, Swangard said.
"I would certainly be recommending (to) any prospective sponsor that there are safer bids for your money right now than cycling," he said.
"Cycling is the one sport that epitomises the abuses of performance-enhancing substances," he added.
Even before Landis's positive, Swiss hearing-aid company Phonak, his team's sponsor, had announced it was pulling out of the Tour de France next year.
Andy Lee, director of marketing and communications for USA Cycling, declined to comment on the impact of Landis's positive pending his B sample results.
Another sport rocked by doping allegations, baseball, continues to enjoy high fan appeal, Swangard and Dorfman pointed out.
San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds has been linked to the BALCO laboratory doping scandal with his personal trainer Greg Anderson, convicted of conspiracy to distribute steroids.
Even with the negative publicity, US newspapers are filled with positive articles about the sport, Swangard noted.
About the only time track and field and cycling have a major impact in U.S. sports pages is during the Olympics or Tour de France or when there is a doping positive, he added.
The entire issue of drugs in sport is a complex one, Dorfman said.
"We want our athletes to be super-human," he said. "But on the other hand, we do not want them to cheat and do it illegally.
"Those things just don't go hand in hand.
"In order to excel it almost seems like you have got to do something (illegal)."