Amid Controversy, We Examine the State of NFL Sponsorships

To say the NFL has received criticism in the past few weeks would be a major understatement. While criticism isn’t new for NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, the outcry from the recent outbreak of domestic violence cases has brought the cries to a new level. This has led league and individual team sponsors to reevaluate their relationships with the league, teams and individually endorsed players. Nike, for example, has suspended the endorsement deal with Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson amid the allegations of child abuse.

Just before that, Nike terminated the contract with former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice following the TMZ video release of him hitting his then fiancé in an Atlantic City casino elevator. Other sponsors like Pepsi have avoided immediate action. Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi said that she is “deeply disturbed” by the behavior of multiple players and that the league’s mishandling of the situation is “casting a cloud” over the NFL’s integrity. However, rather than terminating their long-standing partnership, Nooyi has voiced support for Goodell with a promise to continue monitoring the situation.

Multiple companies — Anheuser-Busch, Procter & Gamble Co., McDonald’s, and Target, among others — have followed a similar path; condemning domestic violence, while maintaining their relationship with the league. While there have been calls from fans and social media for sponsors to boycott, brands appear to value their investment and the unmatched reach that the NFL provides.

“The NFL’s reach is unprecedented,” he says. “So you stick it out … Now, if it comes out that 50 guys did what Rice did and the league covered it up, and then suddenly viewership drops, then you could see some companies cut ties. But short of that, the NFL is just too much of a powerhouse. Yeah, they royally screwed up how they handled it, and it taints the NFL brand, but it doesn’t really taint your brand.” — An anonymous senior vice president at a retail which has done business with NFL teams.

As for the players, those not involved in the scandals should not be directly affected by sponsor backlash. Going forward, players seeking endorsement deals will need to pay extra attention to maintaining a positive public image. Brands and marketers may not be scared away, but they will certainly be on guard to avoid future endorsement disasters.

We expect measures to continue to be taken by the NFL to protect “the Shield”. On Friday, the Commissioner announced partnerships with violence hotlines as well as the dedication of resources to raise awareness and support domestic and sexual assault victims.

In his most recent announcement, Goodell said, “We will continue to work with experts to expand and develop long-term programs that raise awareness, educate, and prevent domestic violence and sexual assault both within the NFL and in our society in general.”

The future may not be as certain for the nation’s most powerful sports league as it was a month ago, but the situation appears to be approaching solid ground. Assuming their are no new allegations, the scandal will shrink in the rearview, and the focus will return to the action on the field.

How Should Brands React?

For brands, the recent events should not discourage future endorsement opportunities with NFL talent. Instead, the events should reinforce a strategy commonly applied to bond investments — diversify! Much like bonds, rather than allowing profitability to hinge on one investment, brands should invest in a diverse array of influencers. By working with a wide variety of players, brands can diversify endorsement risk and reach both highly targeted and broad-reaching audiences.

Click here to see how one brand drove web traffic, new user registration, and app downloads by leveraging the influence of over 50 professional athletes.

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