Major dollars are on the line, but companies are so unhappy with a rash of domestic violence cases involving National Football League players that they are likely to drop sponsorships, said Robert Tuchman, president of sports and entertainment marketing firm Goviva.
"They are really holding on until the last minute until public outcry is so much that they can't be associated with this," said Tuchman. "That's when you're going to find them pulling out."
Football is the nation's most popular sport and has always been an advertising vehicle of choice for major consumer brands. Companies have committed millions of dollars to NFL sponsorships and millions more in related programs to leverage those sponsorships, said Tuchman. He added, "No one wants to pull away from the NFL."
But companies are now distancing themselves from the league following a series of shocking incidents involving pro football players and what's seen as a weak response from the NFL.
In the latest fallout from the domestic violence case involving former Baltimore Raven Ray Rice and other arrests of NFL players, Procter & Gamble (PG) has withdrawn from a promotional initiative with the NFL for Breast Cancer Awareness Month, according to CBS Sports, citing sources with knowledge of the matter.
The consumer products giant had worked with the NFL on a project in which players from every NFL franchise would have worn pink mouthguards and participated in social media to raise money and draw attention to the fight against breast cancer.
But P&G canceled the campaign on Thursday amid the furor over the league's response to Rice and other incidents involving the Minnesota Vikings' Adrian Peterson and the Arizona Cardinals' Jonathan Dwyer. P&G will still donate any money raised in the campaign to cancer charities, CBS Sports reported.
Spokespersons for P&G and the NFL did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
A growing number of sponsors have expressed concern about the recent domestic violence issues involving NFL players. Anheuser-Busch InBev (BUD) this week criticized the league's handling of what the beer seller were behaviors that "go against our own company culture and moral code." PepsiCo (PEP) also has questioned the NFL's handling of domestic violence and child abuse, while Radisson Hotels has suspended its sponsorship of the Vikings.
Companies have also cut ties with Rice, who was captured on video striking his then-fiancee Janay Palmer in a casino elevator. Sponsors who dropped Rice include Nike (NKE) and exercise equipment maker Vertimax.
Tuchman said he hopes the NFL will not only adopt a zero-tolerance policy, but also use its power to change attitudes about domestic violence -- not just in football, but across the country. "Because they are at the top of the top in terms of marketing and brand, they really have an opportunity here" to change both perceptions and behavior, he said.
So far the NFL seems to be squandering that opportunity with missteps. Commissioner Roger Goodell apologized Friday for mishandling the Rice affair. He also admitted the league needs clearer policies and announced new initiatives with the National Domestic Violence Hotline and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.
Tuchman thought such efforts wouldn't be enough to fully address sponsors' concerns. He thinks the NFL needs to take a tougher stance on players shown to have abused women or children.