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Amid PR Crisis, NFL Searches For New CMO

Advertising Age, September 12, 2014

By E.J. Schultz

The National Football League had a very bad week last week. That much is obvious. What is less clear is how much lasting damage the seemingly teflon league sustained from its bungling of the Ray Rice domestic-violence matter.

"The ultimate response of fans and sponsors will depend on whether they believe the NFL ignored or avoided evidence … and whether there has been an attempt by the league to cover up its actions or mislead the public," said Jim Andrews, senior VP-content strategy at sponsorship consultancy IEG. "The jury is still out, but there potentially could be serious damage to the NFL's reputation that could cause some fans and sponsors to walk away."

The NFL's consumer perception plummeted to its lowest point since June 2012 last week, according to YouGov BrandIndex.

There's a lot at stake for the No. 1 sports league, which draws in $10 billion in annual revenue. As of late last week, sponsors — which pump more than $1 billion into the NFL, according to IEG — were sticking by the league, or did not comment. Verizon Communications pledged to help the NFL develop a program to combat domestic violence, as the marketer's CEO, Lowell McAdam, called embattled NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell a man of "very high integrity," Bloomberg News reported. PepsiCo stated that "we are encouraged to see the NFL is now treating this with the seriousness it deserves."

Nationwide Insurance said it will "stay in contact with the league to understand the findings of the third-party investigation currently underway. We are counting on the league to handle this issue appropriately."

The NFL, whose fans are 45% female, is under more pressure from women's advocacy groups and politicians. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., called for Mr. Goodell to step down if an Associated Press report is true that a full video of Mr. Rice knocking out his then-fiancee was sent to the league in April. The report, citing an unnamed law-enforcement official, raised questions about the NFL's assertion that it had not seen the video until TMZ published it early last week. Expect the NFL to apply damage control in the form of volunteerism, financial support and outreach to women's groups.

But while NFL administrators and Mr. Goodell are certainly reeling, the league's most important asset — its individual teams — are likely to escape unscathed. Claudia Caplan, senior VP-business development for MDC Partners, who has experience working on sports accounts, compared the situation to people giving low marks to Congress while still liking their hometown congressional member.

"If I'm a lifelong Bears fan, I can hate on Roger Goodell all I want, or hate on the the league all I want, but it's not going to stop me from being a Bears fan, and it's not going to stop me from going to the game or wearing the gear," she said.

Evidence the fact that ESPN's "Monday Night Football" doubleheader, which aired just as the Ray Rice controversy was gaining steam, finished as the two highest-rated telecasts of the night, attracting 12.6 million viewers.

And where there are eyeballs there are pricey sponsorship deals, including some that court female fans. Consider Procter & Gamble's CoverGirl, the league's "official beauty sponsor." "We support all women and believe that everyone has the right to live in a world free from harassment, discrimination or abuse," a P&G spokeswoman said when asked about the Ray Rice incident.