When her young sons get older, Melissa Jacobs hopes they will prefer baseball or basketball over football. That may be surprising for the operator of a fantasy football site aimed at women. But her sentiment underscores the NFL's challenge following a maelstrom of negative publicity around the league's handling of domestic violence by professional football players.
"The League doesn't seem to be taking its female fans seriously," said Jacobs, the managing editor and founder of TheFootballGirl.com. "I feel like I am just a wallet."
Jacobs and other fans are irked over how the NFL, by far the most popular professional sport in the U.S., has responded to allegations of domestic abuse against former Baltimore Raven Ray Rice and the Minnesota Vikings' Adrian Peterson. In response, the NFL recently named four women to oversee, and possibly reform, its domestic violence policy.
That hasn't stopped major NFL sponsors such as PepsiCo (PEP) and Anheuser-Busch InBev (BUD) from criticizing the NFL for its handling of incidents and the public relations fallout. Notably, however, the companies haven't yet bailed on the league.
"The NFL is such a strong league," said Robert Tuchman, president of GoViva, a sports and entertainment marketing company. "[Sponsors] are trying to hang on. They have billions invested in this property."
When reports first surfaced earlier this year that Rice had assaulted his fiancée in an elevator at an Atlantic City casino, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell suspended him for two games. But after TMZ broadcast video of the assault, Goodell suspended Rice indefinitely, a penalty he's appealing.
As for Peterson, the Vikings reversed their initial decision to allow him to rejoin the team after he was charged with abusing one of his young sons. He was barred from all team activities after the team admitted its earlier decision was a "mistake."
For the NFL, however, the bad headlines just keep coming. Phoenix Cardinals running back Jonathan Dwyer was arrested on Wednesday for allegedly breaking his wife's nose after headbutting her during a domestic dispute in July.
If women get turned off from the sport over incidents of domestic violence, that could make the job of marketing football to future generations even tougher. The sport faces another challenge amid growing concern over the risk of head injuries.
"The NFL has really embraced the social aspect of how games are watched, and women are very much a part of it," said Karen Weaver, an associate professor of sports management at Drexel University in Philadelphia. "There is a sense they want to make the game appeal to them. That's a tall order right now."
Women account for roughly 46 percent of the NFL's fans and represent an integral part of Goodell's plans to grow the league's revenue from about $10 billion to $25 billion in 2027. Women's apparel and other products accounted for roughly $337 million, or 11 percent of the $3.1 billion in retail sales of licensed NFL merchandise in 2013, according to the Licensing Letter. Sales of women's NFL merchandise has surged by double-digits over the past few years, surpassing the growth rate of men's goods, according to Ira Mayer, the trade publication's publisher and executive editor.
In short, this is too large a market for the NFL to ignore.
"It has to be a huge worry," said Galen Clavio, an assistant professor of sports management at Indiana University, adding that women are more likely to follow the NFL than any of the other four major professional sports. "These are major problems that need to be addressed."
The NFL has tapped into the women's market is many ways. For instance, it has a partnership with clothing line Touch by Alyssa Milano that sells NFL apparel and accessories such as earrings with team logos on it.
Companies are also eager to tap into the NFL's female fan base. Female NFL fans can decorate their fingernails with tattoos of their favorite team's logo and with nail polish matching their team colors. They can make their football season look complete with team insignia earnings and a matching necklace.
The question for the league, as well as for advertisers and merchandisers, is whether women are in a buying mood. Chicago Bears fan Chitra Panjabi, a vice president at the National Organization for Women, discovered football after moving to the U.S. for graduate school a few years ago. Her passion for the game has cooled lately, though she did attend a Bears game recently at Soldier Field. NOW has called on Goodell to resign.
"I am turned off by what the NFL is doing," she said.