Bank of America hopes NFL will help end domestic violence

Bank of America, the Carolina Panthers’ most high-profile corporate sponsor, said Wednesday it’s monitoring the National Football League’s handling of player misconduct issues, but stopped short of criticizing the league or the Charlotte team.

The NFL has been under fire for not taking harsher action against players who have been involved in a rash of legal issues, and it’s starting to get pushback from its business partners. Earlier this week, beer maker Anheuser-Busch expressed its disappointment, the Radisson hotel chain suspended its sponsorship with the Minnesota Vikings, and makeup company CoverGirl urged the league to take “swift action” on domestic violence.

The Panthers, whose home field has been called Bank of America Stadium since 2004, have gained national attention for a pending domestic violence case involving defensive end Greg Hardy, who took a voluntary leave with pay on Wednesday.

“We’re watching closely and remain hopeful that the league will devote its energy to promoting the safety of women and children and helping put an end to domestic violence,” said Anne Finucane, the Charlotte bank’s chief strategy and marketing officer, in a statement.

Finucane added that the NFL is “an iconic American entity that has the power to impact awareness on vitally important topics,” noting the league’s work on breast cancer and childhood fitness. The bank did not directly comment on the Panthers or Hardy’s case.

Among other Panthers sponsors, CPI Security Systems said it has the “utmost respect for the Carolina Panthers’ organization” and will continue to monitor the situation. Grocer Harris Teeter said it remains a sponsor “but continues to follow this story closely.”

Other companies, such as Belk, Carolinas HealthCare and Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina, either declined to comment or did not provide a response.

The fact that corporate sponsors are even issuing statements is a sign that the recent controversy has legs, but so far these companies are taking mostly symbolic action, said Manish Tripathi, assistant professor of marketing at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School.

“It’s easy for them to do,” Tripathi said. “It makes them feel good. But I don’t see how any of these companies are going to pull out of their marketing.”

Corporate sponsors have bet big money on their affiliation with the nation’s most popular sport. In 2013, the NFL raked in $1.07 billion in sponsorship revenue, according to sponsorship tracker IEG LLC, up from $1.01 billion in 2012.

But the league has been hammered by a series of ugly legal cases involving star players such as the Minnesota Vikings’ Adrian Peterson, the Baltimore Ravens’ Ray Rice and the Panthers’ Hardy. Critics have said the league was too lenient in punishing these players.

After initially letting Hardy play in the first game of the season, the Panthers benched him for Sunday’s game against the Detroit Lions. On Wednesday, the team announced that Hardy had taken a voluntary leave with pay from the team and will be placed on the NFL commissioner’s exempt list.

Bank of America is spending an estimated $140 million over 20 years for the naming rights to the Panthers’ stadium. It’s also the official bank of the Panthers and four other NFL teams.

Documents previously leaked to the website Deadspin showed the Panthers brought in $206 million in revenue in 2012. Television and radio accounted for more than half of that income, with advertising and stadium naming rights bringing in about $17 million.

IEG ranks the Panthers as “below average” in terms of sponsorship revenue among NFL franchises, with teams such as the Dallas Cowboys and the New England Patriots leading the league.

Sponsors and fans want quick action from the NFL on the misconduct issue, but the response has been muddled because of legal complications and provisions in the collective bargaining agreement between the league and the players, said David Carter, executive director of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business.

“The sponsors are in a tough spot because they are now starting to hear from their consumers and shareholders,” Carter said. “A Bank of America or a CoverGirl have to feel comfortable that the team and league are doing everything they can.”