NFL sponsors under microscope

19 September 2014

NEW YORK: A raft of allegations of domestic violence by NFL players – four have been in the headlines this week – has left brands questioning their associations with the sport, with teams and with individuals.

The latest incident to surface involves Arizona Cardinals number two running back Jonathan Dwyer, who is being held on charges of aggravated assault.

For now, most advertisers have simply condemned the players' conduct and given assurances they will monitor the situation. Indra Nooyi, the head of PepsiCo, issued a statement in which she said she was "deeply disturbed that the repugnant behaviour of a few players and the NFL's acknowledged mishandling of these issues, is casting a cloud over the integrity of the league".

PepsiCo's Gatorade sports drink is handed out to players at games, while the company also has NFL marketing rights for other brands in its portfolio, including Pepsi-Cola and Lay's.

Nike, which supplies jerseys to all 32 NFL teams, is one of the few brands to have taken any direct action, scrapping or suspending deals with two of the players involved.

The Wall Street Journal quoted one major advertiser as saying, "Obviously, we don't condone violence against women, but how is it the right thing to do for our shareholders to pull out of the NFL?"

All brands are facing the same dilemma in a fragmented media landscape where sports are one of the few areas guaranteed to bring in a large live TV audience. "In a world where you can't get a big audience anymore, where the hell are you going to go?" asked the advertiser.

WSJ columnist Jason Gay noted how the NFL had successfully turned a five-month season into a year-long obsession and thought itself invulnerable to criticism. But now "all the overlooked hypocrisies are up for review. Parties that have long benefited from the league's largesse – politicians, sponsors, media surrogates – are experiencing epiphanies of doubt".

Possibly one of the league's biggest challenges will be holding onto female viewers – and by extension the advertisers targeting them – who now account for 45% of the audience. A failure to deal with issues around domestic violence could lead to many women turning off, sports business analysts have said.

Data sourced from Wall Street Journal, CNN, Reuters; additional content by Warc staff