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Will Female Fans, Sponsors Forgive The NFL?

Advertising Age, September 10, 2014

By E.J. Schultz

Here's a sign that you might have a PR problem: When TMZ lectures you on morality.

That is the hole the National Football League finds itself in this week as it seeks to protect its image after the celebrity-gossip site released footage of Ray Rice knocking out his then-fiancee and current wife. The Baltimore Ravens released the running back Monday and the NFL suspended him indefinitely. But the league is taking heat for initially suspending Mr. Rice for only two games before TMZ published the video.

In a follow-up report early Tuesday morning, TMZ raised questions about how aggressively the league pursued the video evidence originally, asserting that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell "made his disciplinary decision in the dark, which raises the question ... Is that the way he wanted it?"

Even the Onion weighed in Tuesday with biting satire that mocked the league for taking strong action only after the video was released.

The public shaming is troublesome for a league that has aggressively courted women in recent years, whether it be pink-colored breast-cancer-awareness campaigns, or attempts to increase sales of female NFL apparel that has been plugged with ads in women's magazines such as Marie Claire.

About 45% of the NFL's fan base is female, the NFL Network's director of sales told Ad Age last year in a story about the league drawing jewelry advertising.

"Roger Goodell is on thin ice right now because of this," said Gene Grabowski, a senior strategist at Levick, whose practices include crisis communications and corporate reputation work. "It's bigger than just sports," he added. "The NFL has to be mindful of the example that it sets and very mindful of how it polices its players and teams," he said, noting that the White House has even weighed in on the issue with a statement Monday calling domestic violence "contemptible and unacceptable in a civilized society."

NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said that critics of the way the NFL initially handled the situation "are right." He referenced a lengthy letter that Mr. Goodell sent to NFL owners in late August in which he admitted he originally mishandled the situation.

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Mr. McCarthy said the league tried to obtain video from authorities including New Jersey State Police, but the video "wasnt made available to us and we didn't have an opportunity to see it until yesterday." He said the league has not hired an outside PR consultant to deal with the issue and is handling it internally.

In a nation of crazed football fans, the teflon league will likely survive its mishandling of the matter without losing much — if any — of its loyal support, including from sponsors, said Jim Andrews, senior VP-content strategy at sponsorship consultancy IEG. "There's a lot to be critical of in terms of the way the NFL has handled [the issue]," he said. But "when it comes down to Sunday afternoon or Monday night and your team is playing, the bad things go out the window and it's all about the game … and I think that goes for men and women fans."

He said that NFL sponsors that target women could use the issue as an opportunity "to say to women [that] we understand the problem and we understand where the league and some of its teams have had some missteps." But he cautioned brands and the league against "being seen as capitalizing on a domestic violence incident."

Among the league's most female-centric sponsors is Procter & Gamble's CoverGirl. The brand, which is the league's "official beauty sponsor," markets special "gameface" makeup for each team. "CoverGirl's partnership with the NFL is all about celebrating female fans of the game," a P&G spokeswoman said when asked about the Ray Rice incident. "We support all women and believe that everyone has the right to live in a world free from harassment, discrimination or abuse."

Tara Peters, VP of media relations American Cancer Society, said the organization will again partner with the NFL this October for its breast-cancer-awareness campaign. The effort, called "A Crucial Catch," involves players, coaches and referees wearing pink game apparel. Ms. Peters said the Ray Rice matter is a "serious issue, but it's not related to the breast cancer issue."

Mr. McCarthy said league will will continue to work with its sponsors and fans "to let them know that we made a mistake and we will do better." In Mr. Goodell's August letter, he said that "in the coming months, we will explore meaningful ways to incorporate domestic violence and sexual assault awareness and prevention into our public service work. We will do this with the assistance of responsible outside organizations and the potential participation of current and former players, coaches and families who have been affected and are willing to speak out."