After Ray Rice, the NFL Needs to Go Big to Restore Brand With Women

It may be 'toast' if it doesn't, marketers say

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If the National Football League addresses the Ray Rice scandal as merely a public relations problem, most branding experts and marketing execs say it's making a colossal mistake. In fact, Christopher Lehmann, ecd and general manager for Landor Associates' Chicago office, said the league "is toast" if it adopts a weak crisis strategy.

"Any truly great brand will take an event like this—or, more exactly, a topic of serious social concern like domestic violence—and know that it must confront the issue and act like a leader," he said. "If all the NFL is seen to do is manage its PR in pursuit of profit rather than act on its civic obligation, it's up to the fans to stand up and lead—not just women but husbands and fathers, too."

Bob Dorfman, ecd at Baker Street Advertising and a sports marketing analyst, predicts the league will nearly go over the top with its response with a number of publicized efforts on the domestic violence issue, including education programs for its players and big donations to anti-violence programs.

"[There] may be even a Sunday during the season," he said, "dedicated to national awareness of this issue, with every player wearing specially designed uniform patches, a theme song written by [pop singer] Pharrell performed during every game’s halftime that week, TV ads featuring top players addressing the subject, etc., etc. The league will throw their money and resources at the issue, and the games will go on, stronger than ever."

Is the NFL in Trouble With Female Fans?

A quick recap of relevant recent events: The National Football League—one of the great empires in modern media—recently boasted that women now make up 46 percent of its fans. And then yesterday came TMZ's release of what can now be referred to as "the most-disturbing Ray Rice video," which clearly showed the Baltimore Ravens running back throwing a violent punch into the face of his then-fiancée and now-wife Janay Rice. Social media outrage ensued, the team kicked him off and the NFL suspended him indefinitely. People were aghast that such a video existed. But before the clip surfaced, Rice had only been suspended for two games and fined a little more than $58,000 after a first video from the same incident was published by TMZ that showed him dragging his unconscious wife through a hotel lobby. 

"The NFL's been criticized because the initial punishment didn't exactly fit the crime," said Charlotte Tomic, public relations consultant at Tomic Communications.

And because the NFL is immensely popular—marketing company Branding Keys rates the league as America's No. 1 brand in terms of consumer sports loyalty—the development raises the question about whether pro football's lost any of the ground it has made with women in recent years due to the Rice episode.

"There’s no doubt in my mind that it will have an effect," said Jason Sullivan, managing director of ad agency Publicis Seattle. "Now, how much of an effect truly depends on how the league continues to address the situation."

Sullivan added, "Even for a league built on the bedrock of masculinity, whose players are idolized as modern-day gladiators, this isn't a brand issue. Heck, this isn't even a women’s issue. This is a human issue, and the NFL has a responsibility to start acting like the role model it sells its players as. But for now, the league needs to start walking down the long path to repairing a large blemish on its shield [logo]. It's often said that the principled path isn’t the easiest path."

The NFL, in terms of merchandising, already had problems with its female audience, which has grown tired of the league's onslaught of pink team jerseys that have seem to wink at the idea of femininity in an overwrought manner.

"Outside of [the Ray Rice] issue, we think the NFL has been in a shaky position with women as females are becoming less satisfied with just … focusing so much on the fashion component rather than making the games more inviting to all groups," said Paul Beck, COO of ad agency Attention.

Kevin Meany, CEO of BFG Communications, wonders how deeply the Rice scenario will resonate with female fans of the Dallas Cowboys, San Francisco 49ers or the reigning Super Bowl champions Seattle Seahawks.

"I don’t know any woman whose favorite team is the NFL," he said. "In other words, the Baltimore Ravens may take a hit, but the league is at least one step removed from the fans. Women, and men alike, get behind their team on Sunday afternoon—not the NFL. So to answer the question, yes, I’m certain the Ray Rice debacle will hurt the league’s brand, but it likely won’t affect ticket sales or TV ratings. On the other hand, I can pretty much guarantee, [NFL] commissioner Roger Goodell, married with two daughters, is the brand that’s been hurt, both at home and in the office."

Eric Johnson, founder and president of ad agency Ignited, was more skeptical about the scandal's long-term impact on the league. "It was a horrible act, but [Rice will] take the blame, not the league," he said. "By isolating him, and punishing him, it will close this ugly chapter."

While opinions vary among marketers when it comes to the long-term effect of the Rice fiasco, the seriousness of it all is lost on no one.

"The debacle really should hurt the league's brand with women, and I hope it does, significantly and permanently," said Toby Southgate, Brand Union CEO. "Will it? Let's see."

@Chris_Heine Christopher Heine is a New York-based editor and writer.