The NFL has yet to be able to get from one slate of Sunday's games to the next without making negative headlines. There are simply too many scandals, tragedies and self-inflicted PR gutshots to cover in this space. Before we cover the highlights then, let me make it clear that this matters to your wallet whether you’re an investor or simply one of millions of Americans subconsciously tithing to wash away the sense of guilt you feel whenever you watch our national sport.
In the grand tradition of Watergate, if you want to know the truth about the NFL, its sponsors and the television networks all you have to do is follow the money. Here goes:
Major sponsors are getting nervous. Following harsh open letters to the NFL from Anheuser-Busch InBev (BUD) and PepsiCo (PEP) last week Procter & Gamble (PG) decided to opt out of supporting October’s NFL Breast Cancer Awareness month. That’s looking like a good call. The New York Post is reporting that last week players scheduled to shoot an ad promoting breast cancer awareness no-showed the crew of a commercial.
The ad agency and spot director were the same folks who made the viral Derek Jeter ad for Derek Jeter’s last goodbye. Among those left waiting were a breast cancer survivor who drove down to New York from Boston for the event.
Starting to feel like the NFL has a troubled relationship with women? Hold that thought…
Also in today’s news the Dallas Cowboy’s team owner Jerry Jones is being sued for more than $1 million by a woman who claims the billionaire sexually assaulted her in 2009. Curiously, part of the suit claims she’s been taking money for more than four years from Jones who she says was paying her to keep her from pressing charges.
Last night was a double header of sorts for the league. First in an event that had been wildly anticipated all day, South Park tore the league apart for its tone deafness on racial relations in regards to the Washington DC franchise. Oh yeah, that. It’s been so long I almost forgot the league was also racially insensitive as opposed to just biased against women and kids.
Finally there was the announcement that ESPN has suspended Bill Simmons, the editor in chief of its popular Grantland site, for his failure to “operate within ESPN’s journalistic standards." The failure in question occurred during the popular BS Report podcast Simmons hosts. In a segment that’s now been pulled from the Grantland site and iTunes Simmons repeatedly suggested NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was lying in regards to having seen tapes of Ray Rice hitting his then finance’ in an Atlantic City hotel.
Simmons concluded by essentially daring ESPN to try to muzzle him. "I really hope somebody calls me or emails me and says I'm in trouble for anything I say about Roger Goodell," he said. "Because if one person says that to me, I'm going public. You leave me alone. The commissioner's a liar and I get to talk about that on my podcast."
Challenge accepted! ESPN put Simmons in the corner for three weeks.
Here’s the thing; none of this has to be happening. Simmons knows he works for a company that’s in bed and cuddled up in all kinds of ways with the NFL. He called the league commissioner a liar. Nothing in the history of the Walt Disney corporation, which owns ESPN, would suggest the company would accept him going rogue.
That said, and I say this as a Disney (DIS) shareholder, I expect the company to be smarter than this. From a PR perspective this just looks horrible. Why pull the clip? This is the Internet, Disney. Of course the audio is still available and now you’ve made absolutely certain everyone on earth will hear it. Did you really think the clip would just disappear? Trust me on this: once something is on the net it lives forever.
Of course this comes down to money. Disney is known for Princesses and Superheroes but they make their money from sports. ESPN pays way more than $1 billion to the NFL every year for the right to carry the NFL. That’s money insanely well spent. In 2013 Disney’s media networks division took in almost half of the company’s $45 billion in revenue and 60% of it’s $10.7 billion in profits.
ESPN by some reports charges cable customers an average of $6, far more than any other channel.
Simmons had to get slapped on the wrist, but it’s not like Disney to let a partner push it around like that. In protecting the good name Roger Goodell no longer has Disney is actively hammering the value of its Grantland brand and at least appearing to do the bidding for a league so backwards that it actually allowed a breast cancer survivor to be stood up for a commercial shoot.
And for what? To protect Roger Goodell? It’s a nice idea but that parade has already gone by. The commissioner is done. The only 33 people who don’t seem to know it are him and the NFL team owners.