Football season had a rough start this year.
Former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice was caught on tape knocking out his fiance and Minnesota Vikings Adrian Peterson was indicted for child abuse, putting a spotlight on how the NFL handles domestic violence. Many fans haven't liked what they've seen, and now they're joined by another group the league may have to listen to: its sponsors.
McDonald's, Visa, Campbell's Soup, CoverGirl: A growing list of NFL sponsors have come out with statements applying pressure to the league. Anheuser-Busch, which has a $1.2 billion, six-year contract with the NFL, used some of the harshest language, saying: "We are disappointed and increasingly concerned by the recent incidents that have overshadowed this NFL season. We are not yet satisfied with the league's handling of behaviors that so clearly go against our own company culture and moral code."
"The NFL here is a multibillion-dollar business," says Gabe Feldman, director of the sports law program at Tulane University. "If some of those billions start to get threatened, I think the NFL is going to stand up and take notice."
But so far, sponsors have stopped short of publicly threatening to tear up their contracts with the NFL. Radisson hotels ended its limited sponsorship with the Minnesota Vikings, but when it comes to individual teams and players, the stakes are lower. But the costs — like having the Radisson logo in the background at press conferences responding to child abuse allegations — are higher.
"There's a lot of sports properties but there's only one NFL," says Kenneth Shropshire, director of the Wharton Sports Business Initiative.
The sheer size and engagement of the NFL's audience may insulate it from criticism more than the NBA, which banned former Clippers owner Donald Sterling for life following racist remarks, but only after companies such as State Farm, CarMax and Virgin America withdrew their sponsorship from the Clippers.
"[The NFL is] a $10 billion-a-year industry. The next closest sports are $3 [billion], $4 billion behind. So it's astronomically larger, even though we don't think of it as such," says Shropshire.
He thinks major NFL advertisers are more likely to apply pressure behind the scenes than publicly break ties.
But there could still be looming financial implications for the sport. "I think if you were a sponsor right now contemplating an investment in NFL, you'd probably wait," says Kent Atherton of sports media firm Atherton Communications.
And if more damning details emerge, big money advertisers could do more than just talk.