Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Kavitha A. Davidson: Sponsors can penetrate NFL shield

Kavitha A. Davidson: Sponsors can penetrate NFL shield

Listen to this article

If Adrian Peterson had the New England Patriots to thank for the Minnesota Vikings’ decision to reinstate him, the rest of us might have Radisson hotels to thank for the team finally doing the right thing.

The Vikings placed Peterson on the exempt/commissioner’s permission list, barring him from all team activities. This came just two days after general manager Rick Spielman, speaking in front of a backdrop emblazoned with logos of the Vikings and team sponsor Radisson, had said the All-Pro running back would return. Shortly thereafter, the Minnesota-based hotel chain suspended its partnership with the team.

We should be used to this by now: Teams and leagues making terrible decisions, seeing just how much they can get away with, until public pressure or, more effectively, sponsor pressure, forces their hand. In addition to Radisson, Nike announced that it was pulling its deal with Peterson himself.

Amid all the missteps in handling Peterson and Ray Rice, calls for Roger Goodell’s resignation are little more than talk unless national sponsors pull their dollars not just from the Vikings and Baltimore Ravens, but also from the NFL at large, giving the other owners an incentive to stop going about business as usual.

While that may have seemed inconceivable just a few days ago, several of the league’s major partners have publicly sent a warning to the NFL to shape up. Among these were McDonald’s, Visa, Campbell’s Soup, Pepsico and, perhaps most ominously, Anheuser-Busch. Pepsico spends $100 million a year on its NFL sponsorship, while the maker of Budweiser feeds the league $200 million a year in a six-year deal. It has also been the exclusive beer advertiser of the Super Bowl for the last 28 years.

Back in April, a similar deluge of sponsor outrage upped the ante against then-Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling. That was a much more clear-cut case, however. NBA commissioner Adam Silver got deserved praise for his swift leadership in banning Sterling from the league, but the fact remains that neither the league nor the other teams’ owners had anything to gain from Sterling’s continued ownership of the Clippers.

It’s different in the NFL, where the owners have all reaped huge benefits from Goodell’s tenure, with revenues and ratings growing at an astronomical pace over the past eight years. Viewership is unlikely to take a big enough hit to move the needle: Ratings for last Thursday night’s Ravens game were up 108 percent over last year. It’s up to the sponsors, then, to hit the league where it hurts most.

Even then, it’s important to remember that the NFL’s crisis isn’t just about one man, Goodell — it’s about the 32 others whose interests drive everything he does. It’s about a culture in which controlling the league’s image, “Protecting the Shield,” takes priority over all other matters. As that brand becomes increasingly associated with scandal and leadership failure, it’s the sponsors that gain ever more power and impetus to enact meaningful change in America’s sport.

Kavitha A. Davidson writes for Bloomberg News. 

Networking Calendar

Submit an entry for the business calendar