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Published September 17, 2015
The NFL's idea of outreach to women was once described as "shrink it and pink it." That is, taking the same stuff the league was already selling to men, scaling it to size and then splashing on a lot of pink dye.
That's not enough anymore.
Fans will see pinked-out fields this weekend for the start of the NFL's version of "Breast Cancer Awareness Month." Keep in mind the league took in more than $9 billion last year from an audience in which women made up almost half (46 percent, or 93 million total viewers).
The NFL's fourth annual campaign, dubbed "A Crucial Catch," is a good cause to be sure. Like any runway show — albeit one with violent collisions — the participants will be accessorized head to toe. According to the league's own inventory, that means pink "cleats, wristbands, gloves, sideline caps, helmet decals, captains' patches, chin straps, shoe laces, skull caps, sideline towels, eye shield decals, quarterback towels and mouth guards."
(OK, maybe not mouth guards, since players who agreed to wear them to endorse Crest toothpaste were allowed to opt out after corporate parent Procter & Gamble pulled out of the campaign in response to the league's colossal bungling of the Ray Rice affair.)
Fans won't be shortchanged, either. In addition to being handed pink rally towels in some stadiums, they'll be treated to pink goal post padding, cheerleaders waving pink pompoms, special pink ribbon game balls and pink-ribboned caps for coaches, team personnel and officials.
You might think all that pink would translate into a lot of money.
Maybe, maybe not. Depends on who you ask.
The NFL donates 100 percent of the proceeds from the sale of pink merchandise and game-worn items through an auction on NFL.com. In 2009, the first year of the program, that meant a check to the American Cancer Society for $310,175; last year, it was for $1.86 million. It's not a direct comparison, but the society's campaign with the Walgreen's chain — which offers customers a chance to add a donation when paying for their purchases — raises about $5 million annually.
The NFL has kicked in about $6.7 million total so far, and there's no question their partnership with ACS has been increasingly effective at getting out the word. This year, in every NFL market, there will be free, on site-screenings and support staff to answer questions. The campaign has already provided 10,000 free screenings and educated another 72,000 women on its benefits. A survey last season found that 70 percent of the women who watched games during October got the message as well, and the number has been steadily climbing. But as far as tangible benefits that's about it.
Cancer society spokeswoman Tara Peters says there's no easy way to calculate the real value of putting that message in front of the audience that NFL games offer, which should be well north of 150 million viewers by the end of the month. There are sponsorship analysts who measure the impact of similar campaigns, and a few say there are better and perhaps more impactful opportunities out there.
October also happens to be "Domestic Violence Awareness Month," though you'd be hard-pressed to find its symbolic purple ribbons amid the avalanche of pink. It's also an effort that could benefit greatly from the NFL's outsized reach, and in turn, restore some of the luster to the league's image.
"The fight against breast cancer is obviously a very well-supported cause. Just look at how many events coalesce around the pink ribbon," said Jim Andrews, senior vice president for the sponsorship firm IEG. "That makes the NFL just one of many corporations that are part of the effort. ... But domestic violence is a cause that needs help, both in terms of organization and financial backing.
"Given the recent issues the league's been dealing with, in terms of enlightened self-interest, that's a cause the NFL could get behind and actually make a difference — imagine PSAs (public-service announcements) by some well-known players, a campaign to raise funds for local programs and shelters ... If the NFL is serious about broadening their appeal to women, it's an opportunity well worth looking into."
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell seems to be doing just that. Two weeks ago, he named three outside consultants to help shape league policies on domestic violence and sexual assault. Last weekend, he spent three hours at the headquarters of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, following up on the league's multiyear, multimillion-dollar pledge of assistance.
Be wary, though, any time the words "NFL" and "enlightened self-interest" appear in the same sentence. This is the same league, after all, that's plowed plenty of money into a program designed to convince mothers, despite mounting evidence to the contrary, that there's a way to tackle that makes football safer for their kids.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.