By Annie Ross

If Roger Goodell thought he had problems deflecting criticism from women’s groups over his mishandling of the NFL players’ domestic abuse, he’s got another thing coming.

Budweiser's sponsorship of the NFL cost a pretty penny.

Budweiser’s sponsorship of the NFL cost a pretty penny.

Fed up with the league’s woeful inconsistencies on domestic violence and its belligerent insistence on protecting misbehaving players, Anheuser-Busch took the NFL to task on Tuesday. No, it didn’t say it was pulling its $1.2 billion, six-year contract – yet.

But it doesn’t take a marketing genius to see what’s down the road if the NFL doesn’t get its act together. And fast.

Already, Radisson has temporarily cut ties to the Minnesota Vikings following general manager Rick Spielman’s inept statement Monday that star running back Adrian Peterson was simply “disciplining a child” when he left welts and bruises on his young son’s body that resulted in an indictment on charges of child abuse.

“We are disappointed and increasingly concerned by the recent incidents that have overshadowed this NFL season. We are not yet satisfied with the league’s handling of behaviors that so clearly go against our own company culture and moral code,” Anheuser-Busch said in a statement to USA TODAY Sports.

“We have shared our concerns and expectations with the league.”

With a mere three sentences, the beer maker managed to do what that ugly Ray Rice video and the sickening photos of the injuries to Peterson’s son could not. The fear of ticking off big-money sponsors is what keeps Roger Goodell awake at night, and if he and the NFL owners don’t get now that coddling players accused of beating their wives and children is unacceptable, they never will.

“We understand,” NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said in a statement. “We are taking action and there will be much more to come.”

Anheuser-Busch is one of the league’s largest sponsors, spending $149 million just on Super Bowl commercials from 2009-13, according to Adweek. It is also a local sponsor of more than three-quarters of the 32 teams. That’s hardly pocket change, even in a league that generates more than $9 billion a year.

Remember when Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban predicted a few months ago that the NFL was due for an “implosion” in the next 10 years? Take away Budweiser and Bud Light, and it would be more like two or three.

“The implications of that, in terms of the investment, not to exaggerate but it would be staggering over the years,” said Chris Cakebread, a Boston University professor who specializes in sports advertising. “It would be a very, very difficult process for the league to replace that because there just aren’t that many brands that have that kind of money.

“They were probably waiting for everything to blow over,” Cakebread added. “This is not blowing over.”

The NFL has made some moves to address its shortcomings on domestic violence. In addition to tougher penalties, Goodell announced Monday that he had expanded the role of one female vice president and was adding three women to help advise him on the issue.

On Tuesday, he announced the addition of another female executive, Cynthia C. Hogan, who will be the league’s senior vice president of public policy and government affairs.

But the San Francisco 49ers have stubbornly stood by Ray McDonald, who is facing domestic assault charges. The Vikings originally reinstated Peterson, though they reversed course Wednesday by deactivating him. Greg Hardy, who was convicted by a judge of domestic assault and is now awaiting a jury trial, could return to the Carolina Panthers this week after sitting out last weekend.

Goodell and the teams claim they’re waiting for legal proceedings to be resolved, but that’s just another excuse. Employers suspend or discipline employees accused of wrongdoing all the time – often for offenses far less serious than this.

No, the NFL assumed it could weather the fallout just as it has the bad publicity from the concussion crisis. Former players are dying at an alarming rate from brain trauma suffered during their careers, and it hasn’t even put a dent in the NFL’s bottom line.

But shrugging your shoulders at players who beat women and children isn’t just reprehensible, it’s bad math.

About 45% of the NFL’s fan base is female, according to an NFL-commissioned report last year by C. Keith Harrison, an associate professor at the University of Central Florida. Citing another study, Harrison also said women influence 85% of purchasing decisions related to disposable income.

In other words, all those women the NFL panders to with pink apparel in October spend a lot of money the other 11 months out of the year, too.

“It’s not just a bunch of old guys drinking beer in their man caves. You’ve got a sizeable portion of women,” Cakebread said. “Advertisers are really reluctant to lose that, and they’re being very conscious in their reaction.”


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