Automakers stand by NFL despite abuse scandal

Michael Wayland
The Detroit News

As criticism continues over the National Football League's handling of player misconduct involving domestic and child abuse allegations, automakers have no plans to cut advertising ties with the league.

Some of the top-spending companies for NFL broadcasting, including General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co., Chrysler Group LLCand Toyota Motor Corp., say they have no plans of pulling ads or sponsorships this season.

"We aren't going to change our sponsorship," GM spokesman Patrick Morrissey told The Detroit News Friday, adding the company does not plan to cancel any advertising. Mark Reuss, GM's head of global product development, affirmed that position Tuesday, saying there was no update or any more discussion at the executive level about GM's official sponsorship of the league.

GM spent $173 million on broadcast advertising during last year's NFL season and on through the Super Bowl — the second-highest of any company, according to market research and insights firm Kantar Media. GM also has been an official NFL sponsor since 2001, and a GMC has been the Official Vehicle of the NFL since 2009, said GM spokeswoman Ryndee Carney.

GM and other automakers have invested more in NFL television ads and sponsorships as the sport's popularity and viewership have grown. Kantar Media data show automakers accounted for $919.1 million of the nearly $4 billion in ad broadcast spending during the 2013-2014 season and playoffs. That's up from about $850 million during the 2012-2013 season.

Kantar Media reports the NFL's top five broadcast advertisers last season were Anheuser-Busch InBev ($194.3 million), GM ($173 million), Verizon Communications Inc. ($166.7 million), Fiat-Chrysler ($156.2 million) and Ford ($124.1 million).

Representatives for Ford and Chrysler said they have made no changes to their advertising plans; neither is an official sponsor. Chrysler said it will continue to monitor the NFL's actions.

"Our media plans remain in place at this time," Chrysler said in a statement to The News. "We will continue to monitor the NFL's actions and any future decisions will be assessed accordingly."

Some companies, including Anheuser-Busch, Pepsico and McDonald's, have publicly criticized the league in recent days for its handling of abuse allegations against players, but they have not pulled advertising.

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

Nike severed its endorsement deal with Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, whom the NFL has suspended indefinitely after video showed he had knocked out his then-fiance in a casino elevator. Radisson Hotels suspended its sponsorship with the Vikings, whose running back Adrian Peterson reportedly spanked his 4-year-old with a wooden switch.

Ad expert and retired Michigan State University advertising, public relations professor Bruce Vanden Bergh, said he isn't surprised by companies only dropping individual team or player sponsorships, because the NFL as a league is a cash machine for advertisers.

"There's too much money involved for the automakers to overreact, or react too quickly," Vanden Bergh said. "It's their bread and butter."

Toyota, the third top-spending automotive brand last year at $97 million in broadcasting, said it does not condone any violence against women or children, but it believes the NFL "will address these significant issues of violence swiftly and sternly."

"Respect for all people is a core value of Toyota's, and child abuse or domestic violence in any form is unacceptable behavior by anyone," the company said in a statement to The Detroit News. "It is especially egregious when it occurs in sports whose high-profile players are often role models for our youth. While Toyota is not a direct sponsor of the NFL, we and our dealers have long relied on NFL programming to connect with our customers."

Michael Bernacchi, a marketing professor at the University of Detroit Mercy, pointed out that if a company were to pull an ad, there's always another company willing to fill it.

"If they pull it, I wonder what the likelihood of someone filling that spot would be? We know," he said. "Is (pulling the ad) the right thing to do? Absolutely. Make no mistake about it."

USA Today reported this year that the NFL hopes to achieve $25 billion in annual revenue by 2027, up from about $10 billion now.

Detroit News reporters Melissa Burden and Michael Martinez contributed.

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