The NFL has gotten off to a rocky start in 2014 to say the least. As summer was winding down this year, the NFL made headlines not for anything related to the game itself, but in relation to the conduct that some of its stars had reportedly taken part in off the field. The spotlight has been focused mainly on Ray Rice recently. The now former Baltimore Ravens running back came under fire during the off-season when he was charged with domestic abuse against his then fiance. Rice, much to the displeasure of the general public, received only a small two-game suspension for his crime. That is until a graphic video of the alleged incident surfaced on the internet earlier this month, resulting in Rice’s indefinite suspension from the NFL.
While Rice’s case has been the most high-profile, it is not the only one. Other NFL athletes like Ray McDonald and Jonathan Dwyer have also been arrested within the past month for domestic violence, and now Adrian Peterson, one of the highest-grossing and most popular players in the league, is under investigation for child abuse.
With all of the bad press the NFL has received lately, it puts the brands that sponsor the NFL and its teams in a sticky situation. In light of recent events, there are many who hold the opinion that brands sponsoring the parties involved in scandals should cut ties with their NFL affiliates. Interestingly enough, though, sponsors have mostly sides with the NFL during this crisis. Under Armour, who signed a 10-year agreement with the Baltimore Ravens in 2012, is one such sponsor. When Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti gave a press conference in regards to how the Ravens handled the Rice situation, Under Armour’s logo was still proudly displayed on the backdrop alongside the Ravens’ logo. Instead of breaking away from the partnership, Under Armour stated that they “believe they [the Ravens] will work through this and find ways to have a positive societal impact in efforts to stem domestic violence.”
This has been the attitude of most sponsors throughout this crisis. In fact, no sponsor has fully pulled out of its deal so far, even amidst the severe criticism that these teams are taking. Why would a sponsor continue to support an entity that is being torn apart in the media and whose public perception has become increasingly negative? Money. While they may have a lot of pressure put on them to back out of these agreements, the financial benefit they gain from the relationships seem to be too irresistible to part with. “Either way, it is all about protecting your business” according to Tony Ponturo, a former vice president for global media at Anheuser-Busch, one of the league’s biggest sponsors.
There is no denying that the NFL is perhaps the single most powerful marketing outlet in America. More so than any other sport, or any televised event for that matter, NFL broadcasts attract an enormous audience made up of a diverse group of consumers. Sponsorships for the league and teams were valued at $1.07 billion in 2013. Cutting their ties with the NFL or NFL teams could seriously hurt these companies’ marketing campaigns. Getting a partnership as an NFL sponsor is a highly coveted deal, and if a sponsor pulls out, there are plenty of other candidates lined up to take their place, making it difficult for the sponsor to get the deal back when the issue has been resolved.
At the same time, continuing the support can make sponsors a target for backlash from the public, who may boycott a company’s products simply because they are linked to the NFL or a particular team, even though the company itself did nothing wrong.
Personally, I think that most of these sponsors are being a little too supportive. While I understand their desire not to alienate themselves from such a beneficial marketing opportunity, I believe the crisis warrants at least some action on their part. Some sponsors have taken small steps to distance themselves from these shamed teams. Radisson Hotels, for example, suspended its sponsorship with the Minnesota Vikings after the news of Peterson’s child abuse made headlines. This move probably made the public happy, but no doubt will have ramifications financially for the company. In the long-run, however, I don’t see the majority of sponsors following suit. As long as their NFL partnerships keep making them money, I think these sponsors will stay in their agreements for the long-haul.
What do you think about the way sponsors have handled these incidents? Is their support justified? Should they be continuing their partnerships?
Sandomir, R., & Steel, E. (2014, September 23). Advertisers navigate n.f.l.’s handling of domestic violence cases. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/24/sports/football/advertisers-navigate-nfls-handling-of-domestic-violence-cases.html?_r=0