The NFL’s worst-case public relations scenario has dragged into its second week, but the uproar over the league’s handling of abuse allegations facing several high-profile players may just be starting to take a financial toll.
The Radisson hotel chain became the first corporate sponsor to distance itself from the NFL Monday, suspending its sponsorship of the Minnesota Vikings. Last Friday, the team's running back Adrian Peterson was arrested and indicted on one count of reckless or negligent injury to a child after reportedly hitting his four-year-old son with a stick. After deactivating the running back for the Vikings’ loss to the New England Patriots Sunday, the team reinstated him for their upcoming game against the New Orleans Saints.
“Radisson takes this matter very seriously particularly in light of our long-standing commitment to the protection of children,” a statement released Monday by the Minnesota, Minn.-based hotel chain reads. “We are closely following the situation and effective immediately, Radisson is suspending its limited sponsorship of the Minnesota Vikings while we evaluate the facts and circumstances.”
Radisson’s pullout was prompted by the Vikings’ decision to let Mr. Peterson, a recent league MVP and the most valuable member of the team’s roster by far, play while his case is pending. "To be clear, we take very seriously any matter that involves the welfare of a child," the francishe said in a statement released Monday. "At this time, however, we believe this is a matter of due process and we should allow the legal system to proceed so we can come to the most effective conclusions and then determine the appropriate course of action."
It was the latest in a series of questionable judgment calls by the NFL in response to appalling player behavior in recent weeks. The league’s decision to suspend Ravens running back Ray Rice only after a graphic video emerged of Mr. Rice knocking his then-fiancée unconscious in an Atlantic City elevator, was widely seen as a kneejerk reaction to public outrage, rather than coming from a place of social and moral responsibility. That other players facing or convicted of domestic abuse charges were still playing, including Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy and San Francisco 49ers lineman Ray McDonald, made the Rice suspension look even more like pandering.
It was the last thing the league wanted during football’s opening days. Instead of talking about fun things, like possible Super Bowl contenders or breakout rookies after Week 1 of the season, every football analyst on TV was talking about domestic violence and the league's responsibility toward it.
But even as public outcry for a tougher league stance on domestic violence and calls for NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s resignation have drowned out all other football news, corporate sponsors have made very little noise about severing ties with the NFL or individual franchises. After an ad for CoverGirl’s NFL-inspired makeup line altered to portray a woman with a black eye went viral over the weekend with the hashtag #GoodellMustGo, the cosmetics giant released a statement Monday making no indications it was ending its league partnership.
“As a brand that has always supported women and stood for female empowerment, CoverGirl believes domestic violence is completely unacceptable,” the company said in a statement on its Facebook page. “We developed our NFL program to celebrate the more than 80 million female football fans. In light of recent events, we have encouraged the NFL to take swift action on their path forward to address the issue of domestic violence.”
Several sponsors, including Anheuser Busch, Campbell's Soup, Pepsi, and Visa have expressed disappointment over the way the NFL has handled the Rice and Peterson cases, but none have hinted at parting ways with the league.
Such reluctance to forsake football is hardly surprising. The NFL raked in $1.3 billion in endorsement revenue during the 2013 season, and its game broadcasts are consistently the most-watched events on television. With fewer and fewer viewers watching live television, ad space during live sporting events is more valuable than ever, and there is no better way to get your product in front of as many eyeballs as possible than by partnering with the country’s most popular sports league. The NFL’s team owners have been united in their support of Goodell, who has increased the league’s profitability dramatically during his tenure – the values of the 10 most valuable franchises in the NFL have increased between 22 percent and 44 percent in the past year alone, according Forbes.
The Radisson’s move, even, is a relatively small one – the chain only pulled its sponsorship of the Vikings, not the league at large, and it didn’t indicate that the partnership was permanently ending.
Still, the threat of lost ad revenue is often a reliable catalyst for action. It happened in the NBA this past spring, when then-Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s taped racist remarks sent the team’s advertisers fleeing, compelling the league to act quickly to ensure his removal from the team and the league. Last year, former Food Network star Paula Deen lost her slate of shows on the cable channel and scores of lucrative sponsorship deals after admitting to using a racial slur in a taped court deposition.
The whole NFL, of course, is less easily disposed of than a cable TV personality or one NBA owner. But individual players and NFL executives (including a commissioner) are not.