NEW YORK — When NFL players strap on their pink shoes and gloves in October for the league’s annual Breast Cancer Awareness Month campaign, it will be doing so with one less sponsor, a notable retreat blamed on the league’s handling of domestic violence.
Crest, Procter & Gamble Co.’s dental brand, will no longer be offering pink mouth guards to NFL players, the company said Friday, the first sponsor to publicly withdraw from the NFL’s signature overture to women.
“The brand has decided to cancel on-field activation with NFL teams,” Procter & Gamble said in a statement.
The company added it will honor its planned $100,000 donation to the American Cancer Society, the NFL’s longtime partner in the October campaign.
Procter & Gamble’s retreat from the NFL’s game plan to woo women illustrates the risk America’s most popular sports league faces with its female fans while it seeks to correct its acknowledged poor handling of domestic violence cases.
“From a family perspective it makes it really hard to support [the NFL] even though lots of people love it,” said Kelley Skoloda, a women’s marketing expert at Ketchum Inc.
The NFL draws 6 million women to games every week, and women account for about 45 percent of the league’s audience. Women represent a key growth area for the league which has nearly maxed out its audience among U.S. men.
On Friday, a chastened NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell sought to take control of the public outcry, vowing that the league would change its personal conduct policy and he would cede some power in the process.
Domestic violence mushroomed into an issue for the league when Goodell suspended former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice two games for knocking out his then-fiancee Janay Palmer, a punishment considered by many as too lenient.
Goodell later bowed to public pressure and reversed course, suspending Rice indefinitely when website TMZ published a video of the punch on Sept. 8.
Sponsors sought to distance themselves from the NFL this week with consumer brands McDonald’s Corp, Campbell’s Soup Co and Anheuser-Busch InBev saying they had expressed their concerns to the league.
“I believe that women became open to becoming serious NFL fans because they were not aware to Roger Goodell’s and owners’ response to domestic violence,” said Terry O’Neill, the president of the National Organization for Women, which has called for Goodell to resign.
For its part, the NFL has donated some $6 million to the American Cancer Society for education and screening grants.
Skoloda, a marketing expert, says for the NFL’s female fans and the sponsors who want to court them, it is a defining moment for the league.
Women, who tend to judge their personal success on the well-being of their children, according to Skoloda, are also grappling with the long-term health effects of football, including brain trauma.
“They’re playing with things that are at the very top of the list of how moms and women define their personal success,” said Skoloda.