As the NFL tries to overcome criticism over players and violence against women, the league hosted a posh fashion gathering earlier this week in New York.
The NFL’s outreach to women was on display Tuesday night at a chic Manhattan event space, where the league held a fashion show to roll out its latest collections, complete with Victoria’s Secret models and actresses.
“This week has certainly been tough for us, but we know we have to do better,” Leo Kane, senior vice president for consumer products at the NFL, said to start the event. He then moved on to thank the designers and licensees.
The most visible manifestation of the league’s effort to appleal to women appears annually in October, when the league covers much of the game in pink for Breast Cancer Awareness month.
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“The league could have a real problem on their hands,” said Ira Mayer, who writes the Licensing Letter, which tracks sports licensing. According to his calculations, the league generated about $30 million in royalties from the sale of women’s apparel last year. “They already have a public relations problem and a sponsor problem, and that can translate to the licensing market, too,” he said.
Women around the country expressed disillusionment this week as the NFL desperately tried to stanch the public criticism to several controversial cases: Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice punching his then-fiancee in the face; a police report describing abuse of a 4-year-old by Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson; and the league’s prediction in court documents that nearly a third of its players would end up with severe brain damage.
The league announced Wednesday that Peterson and the Carolina Panthers’ Greg Hardy, who is appealing a guilty verdict for assaulting and threatening his ex-girlfriend, were barred from all team activities until their cases are resolved. But by day’s end, another NFL player had been arrested in a domestic-violence case: Arizona Cardinals running back Jonathan Dwyer.
Critics of the league’s handling of these issues include fans of all types, as well as politicians and some of the NFL’s biggest corporate sponsors. But the anger voiced by women - including those who count themselves as fans - is particularly troubling for the NFL, which has invested heavily in trying to overcome its reputation as a domain for alpha males and find new consumers for its merchandise.
Executives at the NFL claim that a significant portion of their millions of fans are women. This helps them bolster their assertion that football is America’s pre-eminent sport while also underscoring the immense possibilities for adding to the $10 billion in revenue the league generates each year.
“The matriarch of the family predetermines an awful lot that goes on, from what sport you play to what media you watch to what products get bought,” Mark Waller, the NFL’s chief marketing officer, said in explaining why women are important to the league. “The role of the female in the household is huge. On the emotional side, the role that the female builds that a family can gather around is fundamental. That sort of communal aspect, which is such a part of the game in America.”
Five years ago, around the time when Commissioner Roger Goodell said he wanted to turn the league into a $25 billion business by 2027, the NFL set out to court women, “listening to their needs much more aggressively and really trying to get under the skin of what needs they have and what can we do better,” Waller said.
Goodell has scrambled to mitigate the damage to the league’s reputation in the weeks after he initially suspended Rice for only two games. After consulting advocates for victims of domestic abuse, he apologized a month later because he “didn’t get it right,” and announced stiffer penalties for players and employees found to have committed domestic abuse. But the uproar has only intensified this week.