NFL's Sponsors Quietly Shift Ads Amid Women Woes

Illustration by: Edel Rodriguez

"The implied threat of financial repercussions is extraordinary," says ESPN's Hannah Storm as female viewership grows, males remain flat and nervous advertisers like P&G send a message without a full-blown attack

A version of this story first appeared in the Oct. 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

The NFL is enduring unrelenting criticism for its handling of violent incidents involving players. And for the first time in the league's 94-year history, the scandal has the potential to affect the NFL's $50 billion business, particularly among one important constituency: women.

A University of North Florida study finds that 25 percent of female NFL fans say the handling of the domestic violence case involving Baltimore Ravens star running back Ray Rice would "discourage them from attending games" and consuming other "league-related media content." While the NFL remains the top lure on TV, the league's male viewership has been flat since 2009 as female viewers have jumped more than 10 percent, according to Nielsen. Women make up about 35 percent of the league's regular-season audience, rising to 45 percent for the Super Bowl.

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National Organization for Women president Terry O'Neill repeatedly has called for commissioner Roger Goodell to resign, most recently after Goodell's Sept. 19 news conference during which he vowed to reform the league. Meanwhile, several female sportscasters, including ESPN's Hannah Storm and Jane McManus, Fox Sports' Katie Nolan and Pam Oliver and CNN's Rachel Nichols, have been among the most prominent voices on the NFL story. "Sports is for everybody, but everybody was not being heard," says Storm, who delivered a passionate critique on SportsCenter after she watched the video of Rice punching his then-fiancee while at the breakfast table with her three teen daughters. "Asking the tough questions, asking the right questions is critical to my job as a broadcaster and as a parent."

Several NFL sponsors also are asking questions. Multiple media buyers tell THR that clients have requested their ads not appear during games featuring the Ravens or Minnesota Vikings, the team of suspended running back Adrian Peterson (due in a Texas court Oct. 8 on a child abuse charge for whipping his 4-year-old son). CBS, which kicked off its $275 million Thursday Night Football package Sept. 11 with strong ratings for a Ravens game, had one sponsor ask to be removed from the broadcast and another request its ads shift, likely away from a discussion of the violence issue during CBS Sports' pregame report. CBS declined to identify the sponsors.

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So far, no advertiser has defected entirely from football. "The NFL is too important to most advertisers to pull out," says one buyer. Still, the erosion of confidence is palpable, with major sponsors including Anheuser-Busch, PepsiCo and McDonald's releasing strong rebukes. Radisson Hotels has suspended its Vikings sponsorship. And Procter & Gamble pulled out of an October breast cancer initiative that would have had players wearing pink mouth guards. "That implied threat of financial repercussions is extraordinary," says Storm.

Anheuser-Busch, the league's biggest sponsor, inked a six-year, $1.2 billion deal in 2011. PepsiCo spends $100 million annually on in-game ads. But the TV networks funnel exponentially more into NFL coffers: ESPN has an eight-year, $15 billion deal for Monday Night Football that is worth nearly $2 billion a year; CBS, Fox and NBC collectively pay $3 billion annually for NFL rights.

Goodell's news conference -- during which he admitted he "made mistakes" -- was widely criticized (including by players reacting on Twitter as Goodell spoke) for offering little in the way of transparency on why the NFL, with a potent security force of former FBI agents could not get its hands on the Rice elevator video.

It has been extraordinarily humbling for a league that enjoyed $10 billion in revenue in 2013 and an ironclad grip on its business. "The league has created this intimacy with the American public," says Tim Green, a former Atlanta Falcons linebacker who did a stint at Fox Sports. "It's everywhere. And so the American public wants the NFL to respond in a bigger way."

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Certainly the NFL is accustomed to scrutiny. The league has been dealing with the issue of player concussions for years (three movies are in development on the subject). But the woeful response to the ugliness in its ranks could be an inflection point in the NFL's dominance.

"While I hold no illusions that folks at the league are in love with our coverage, I certainly believe that they know it's important to fans," says ESPN senior vp Rob King, who oversees SportsCenter as well as the company's newsgathering operations. King says he has not heard from the league about the network's coverage, which has included a damning Sept. 19 Outside the Lines report that Ravens management knew what happened in that Atlantic City, N.J., elevator. (The Ravens have denied the allegations in the report.) Meanwhile, Keith Olbermann, who has taken to calling the NFL the "National Freefall League" on his ESPN2 program, continues to be among the loudest and most impassioned voices calling for Goodell to step down. "I can't think of a time when we said, 'We have to be careful because this is a league partner,' " adds King.

With Peterson's court date looming and an investigation by former FBI director Robert Mueller ongoing, there is sure to be more to come. "Clearly the NFL has their antenna up now," says Fox Sports executive producer John Entz. "It probably should have been up a long time ago."

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