PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- The National Football League didn't suspend Ray Rice only two games for knocking out his fiancee because it doesn't care about women: It did so because it doesn't care about their money.
Earlier this year, the Baltimore Ravens running back knocked out his fiancee in the elevator of an Atlantic City casino and dragged her out, unconscious, in full view of security cameras. He was indicted by a grand jury on a felony assault charge, but avoided prosecution by agreeing to enroll in a one-year program for first-time offenders.
Since then, fans have heard a number of justifications for the NFL not dropping the hammer on Rice: He and his fiancee married the next day, she insulted and hit him and the couple held a press conference in which they jointly apologized for Rice knocking her out. The Ravens even made sure to send out a tweet framing the situation in just the right light:
Janay Rice says she deeply regrets the role that she played the night of the incident.— Baltimore Ravens (@Ravens) May 23, 2014
Last week, the NFL suspended Rice for the first two games of the season. That's about half the suspension an NFL player would receive for smoking marijuana three times during the offseason and two-fifths what that player would receive for stomping on another player during a game.
That doesn't mean the NFL doesn't care about women, as Jezebel argued while going over a lengthy list of domestic violence incidents and outright beatings involving NFL players. It doesn't mean that the league thinks women should bear responsibility for violence against them, as ESPN commentator Stephen A. Smith suggested on air before being unofficially suspended earlier this week. It also doesn't mean that ESPN's Keith Olbermann was right when he insisted “The message to the women who the league claims constitute 50% of its fan base is simple: The NFL wants your money. It will do nothing else for you.”
Nope, Olbermann was way off the mark. The league doesn't even want women's money. This is a league that brings in close to $10 billion a year largely because it leaves no source of revenue untapped. It gets $1.9 billion per season from ESPN for Monday Night Football alone. It rakes in $1 billion a year from NBC, CBS and Fox for regular-season and playoff games. It just took an extra $275 million from CBS this year for the rights to Thursday Night Football and is about to squeeze DirecTV (DTV) for more money from its NFL Sunday Ticket out-of-town games package that already earns the league $1 billion a year.
It gets a tax exemption from the federal government, an antitrust exemption that allows it to keep games off television and a whole lot of public funding for its stadiums. It broadcasts its workout combine for college recruits, its draft and every preseason game. Even its much-loathed Pro Bowl still draws 11.7 million viewers.
If it's willing to take $5 a month in subscription fees from Verizon (VZ) customers just to let them watch games on their mobile devices through the NFL Mobile app, don't you think it would ingratiate itself to everyone it could just to bolster its bottom line? That's certainly what its list of player fines and suspensions indicates. There is no guaranteed suspension for abusing an official, making an illegal hit, fighting or even abusing fans. Wear a logo that doesn't belong to an official NFL or team sponsor or hide/alter a logo belonging to one of the league's benefactors and it's a completely different story.
So why would the NFL go out of its way to insult a demographic that it considers half of its audience if it's so concerned with the state of its cash flow? Simple: It doesn't think women bring in that much money. As props, perhaps, but the pink uniform items the NFL trots out each October for “Breast Cancer Awareness” generate more money for the league and its merchandising partners than they ever do for cancer research. Cork Gaines at Business Insider has been saying for years that only 8% of all money from the NFL's pink merchandise ever actually helps fight cancer. That's $3 million in the last three years from a league that generates $9.5 billion in revenue.
We're also assuming that what the NFL's public relations department says about women publicly in any way reflects the business decisions the league makes privately. While NFL mouthpieces boast about a 50% female fan base, the folks at athlete endorsement group Opendorse put women's share of the NFL audience at closer to 40%. Switch it over to Nielsen's take on the NFL television audience and suddenly women account for only 35% of all viewers. That, apparently, gives not only the NFL the excuse it needs to ignore women, but it gives its sponsors the OK to do the same.
Nevermind that NFL broadcasts drew average of 17.8 million viewers last fall and 205 million unique viewers in 80% of television watching households. When SABMiller/MolsonCoors (TAP) decided to air commercials during NFL games a few years ago, they opted to go with the outwardly misogynist “Man Up series. A pre-bankruptcy, pre-bailout Chrysler drove itself into irrelevance with equally lunkheaded ads that portrayed women as nagging, controlling harpies who required taking a “last stand” against in some underpowered Dodge pony car. Not that Chrysler's new Italian overlords at Fiat were any less terrible.
Teleflora, Dockers, Kia and especially GoDaddy have all spent upwards of $4 million per ad to completely ignore the NFL's female fan base and talk directly to the insecure men that appear to be their target demographic.
It doesn't matter that there are women in fantasy football leagues all over this country. It doesn't matter that they attend games, buy the Sunday Ticket package, patronize bars and restaurants where games are being played and purchase apparel. The NFL and its sponsors seem to firmly believe that they're second-class citizens who just don't bring in as much money as men do.
In that hermetically sealed bubble of ignorance, a two-game suspension for knocking out a woman who dared insult a man or lay a hand on him may not seem so lenient. If anything, it might seem not only stern but perhaps a bit harsh. When thought bubble balloons into the sports media, it's then not out of the question that a male commentator routinely surrounded exclusively by other male athletes and commentators would believe that a woman could instigate being knocked unconscious by a professional athlete who gets hit for a living.
Within that sphere, women don't exist and therefore don't count. There is virtually no impact for the boys' club, which is left to ponder just what women can do to make their lives easier -- usually by shutting up.
However, there's one common thread that runs through all sports and gives voices of all gender equal volume: Money. The National Basketball Association recently rid itself of former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling after a racist tirade to his mistress was caught on tape and broadcast to the public. He wasn't ousted because he'd openly cheated on his wife (as he had for years prior) or because he said racist things or openly discriminated against other races (as he had for years prior): He was ousted for conduct detrimental to the league.
That means he was not only angering the customers, but enraging them to the point that they successfully petitioned sponsors including Anheuser-Busch InBev (BUD), Carmax (KMX) and Sprint (S) to withdraw their support. The NFL isn't taking further action against Ray Rice because there isn't a voice with enough money attached to it arguing for the league to do so.
The NFL has several acquaintances who would fit that bill. Its official sponsors alone include Anheuser-Busch InBev, Barclays (BCS), Bose, Bridgestone, Campbell Soup Company (CPB), Castrol, the National Dairy Council, Extreme Networks, FedEx (FDX), General Motors (GM), Lenovo, Marriott, Mars Snackfood, McDonald's (MCD), Microsoft (MSFT), the National Guard, NetApp, News America, Papa John's, PepsiCo (PEP), Procter & Gamble (PG), Quaker, SAP Americas, Verizon, Visa (V) and military and veteran financial group USAA.
The NFL may not care about women's money, but at least a few of those sponsors might. Perhaps if they heard from enough of the fans that the NFL is blatantly ignoring, the league might just realize there's a world beyond its all-boys bubble.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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