Ray Rice incident could reverberate all the way to Colts franchise

By now we all know the story of Ray Rice, the now former Baltimore Raven running back, and how he punched a woman who is now his wife.

What we don’t know is how that incident and the fallout from it will affect the brand of arguably the country’s most popular sports league, the NFL, and its teams, including the Indianapolis Colts.

“The NFL looks as bulletproof as it gets right now,” said Larry DeGaris, director of academic sports marketing programs at the University of Indianapolis. “But I’m sure even the NFL has its kryptonite.”

Could that be the issue of domestic violence and how Commissioner Roger Goodell and other league officials have handled it when their players have been involved? At this point, who knows? But with all the league’s efforts to attract female fans, it certainly must be a serious concern.

The NFL is a $9 billion business annually, and, according to the league’s own research, 45 percent of its fan base is now women. The Colts, like every other NFL team, offer women-specific clothing and other wares. Many of the most avid Colts fans I know are women.

But DeGaris rightly points out that this isn’t just an issue of concern for women.

“There’s absolutely widespread condemnation of this act by men and women that ‘Hey, you just don’t do that,’” he said.

And DeGaris said everything the league now does “will be framed by this event.”

I’m betting it will even take the shine off the league’s high-profile Breast Cancer Awareness campaign, where the players wear everything from pink cleats to pink gloves during games.

“It may make it seem a little like pandering,” DeGaris said of the NFL’s Pink Campaign. “People—and especially women—will now wonder, ‘Is this more marketing than a real concern about the issue?’”

It’s difficult to guess the short-term impact for the NFL and teams like the Colts. No sponsors have pulled out, and stadiums this week will likely be as full as in Week One. Colts officials were not available Wednesday morning to discuss the impact the Rice situation has had on the local team.

DeGaris wonders whether this episode could slowly erode the league’s fastest-growing fan base—women.

“The biggest challenge for any sports property is getting new fans in the pipeline,” DeGaris said. “The NFL with the concussion issue and now how they’ve handled the issue of domestic violence is really risking alienating moms. And moms play a big role in developing new fans. If mom is strongly anti-NFL, that’s a big discouragement.”

Every marketer I talked to about this suggested the league and its teams have been most hurt by the Rice controversy because NFL and Ravens officials failed to get out in front of it.

In that vein, I began to wonder if Jim Irsay’s three daughters, Carlie, Casey and Kalen, could play a role in helping the Colts soften the impact in this market. Would the Colts be wise to have one or all of the Irsay sisters, each now listed as vice-chair/owner, make a statement addressing the team’s condemnation of domestic violence and re-stating its support of women and families. 

DeGaris wasn’t sure that would be wise. He thought it could be seen as the Irsay sisters interjecting themselves into a situation with which they aren’t really involved.

But here’s the deal: At some point in the not-too-distant future, Carlie, Casey and Kalen are going to be the most tenured female NFL owners in this league, and quite likely the most powerful women in the NFL—which for far too long has been known as an old boys club.

If NFL fans in general and women fans in particular can’t count on them to carry the flag for women’s issues, who in this league can they count on?

If DeGaris’ concerns about the future prove out, the Irsay sisters’ rise to power could come at a time when the league—triggered by the Rice incident and a lot of others—is hemorrhaging fans.

I’m not sure the Irsay sisters, or anyone else for that matter, can alter the course of the future for the NFL or its teams. Maybe it’s unfair even to ask them to try.

But in hopes of stemming the losses that guys like Goodell very well might not see coming, they might want to try sooner rather than later. 

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