The business community fumbled its opportunity this fall to make its support of the National Football League about anything other than the money.
Blue-chip companies like Anheuser-Busch InBev could've stopped spending money on the NFL. Pro football would have found new sponsors, but it's the message here that would have been important. A long list of companies missed a chance to say no to domestic abuse essentially going unpunished or keeping a star in the game while under indictment for lashing a four-year-old child.
Now it's too late. The season has gone on, the TV ratings are up and the news media's spotlight is moving on.
What the advertisers have shown us is that the NFL has become such a powerful economic engine that they won't bother to speak up.
Marketers need the NFL. It's the biggest thing propping up what's left of the American television industry, which basically broadcasts NFL games with some filler programming and advertising slots to sell between football seasons. In the fall 2013 season, 34 of the most-watched 35 TV shows were NFL games.
Football's television appeal far surpasses other sports. The 2013 National Hockey League finals, featuring two tradition-laden franchises from large TV markets, Chicago and Boston, peaked at 8.16 million viewers. That season's NFL championship game had an audience 13 times bigger.
As this NFL season opened, video of Baltimore Ravens player Ray Rice knocking his fiancée unconscious in an elevator surfaced and created a firestorm. Just days later, after the NFL reversed itself and indefinitely suspended Rice, CBS attracted 20.8 million viewers with its first Thursday night game.
The network hadn't had such a highly rated Thursday evening since 2007.
It's no wonder marketers are willing to part with big money. Sponsorships for the league and its 32 teams totaled $1.07 billion in 2013, as calculated by IEG, a research and consulting company.
Anheuser-Busch spent an additional $185.3 million on broadcast advertising, just a slice of $4 billion or so in ad revenue the games on TV generated that year.
Marketing professor George John of the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management said it was a remarkable achievement for the NFL to turn itself into a dominant brand.
In the past, Vikings fans certainly tuned in faithfully to the team's televised games. But now fans everywhere plan evenings around games, often between teams from distant cities.
As a result of the NFL's huge audience "any sponsor can be replaced," said Kent Atherton, a sports marketing consultant and former sports programming executive for DirecTV. "There's competition in all of the key categories."
Anheuser-Busch released a short statement expressing its increasing "concern" after the Rice incident, but Atherton said its point was to give the appearance of being concerned. No one there, he said, gave any serious thought to pulling the plug.
"It's over a billion-dollar deal," he said. "The entire fall marketing campaign is built around that investment. It extends to the local markets, so it extends to the local distributors, too. With Budweiser I think they sensed a groundswell for a boycott in the making. The last thing they needed was for people to stop drinking Bud Light during the football season out of some protest."
As best can be determined, just two big businesses decided to pull some sponsorship dollars: Procter & Gamble and the Radisson unit of Minnetonka-based Carlson.
Procter & Gamble had been planning a breast cancer awareness campaign that would've included pink mouth guards for some NFL players. It wouldn't have taken a top-ranked grad from the Carlson School to see how this "cause marketing" campaign could easily go badly awry.
Pink mouth guards? How about making some available to the fiancées of NFL players who might be at risk of being decked in elevator cabs?
Radisson suspended its sponsorship deal with the Minnesota Vikings in mid-September, a relationship that included placement of the Radisson logo on the backdrop at Vikings press events.
Carlson declined to discuss it, but it was a gutsy call that needed to be made. And it's easy to imagine what happened.
The Vikings held a news conference on Monday the 15th, the day the Vikings reinstated Peterson after he had been indicted in Texas on a charge of reckless or negligent injury to a child. As General Manager Rick Spielman stood in front of the Radisson logo and explained that the Vikings "feel strongly as an organization" that Peterson's conduct was just disciplining a child, anyone watching from the Radisson marketing staff would have been appalled.
The company's statement suspending the deal was a short-term publicity boon, described by the trade publication Adweek as a full quarter's worth of free publicity.
That wasn't the motivation, of course. Carlson and its founding family, through the Carlson Family Foundation, have a philanthropic focus on youth and children's nonprofit programs. The foundation is a co-founder of the World Childhood Foundation, working to better the lives of abused and sexually exploited children.
The company should've explained that. A better opportunity to make a point about a cause it already champions may not ever come along.
So what we saw was a large company willing to stand up to pro football but unwilling to really explain why.
There was so much to say, too. They could have talked about the volunteer work of employees helping children. They could've elaborated on how Carlson couldn't stay with a marketing partner that wasn't troubled nearly enough by an injury to a 4-year-old. They could've said they were open to working with the Vikings in the future, particularly welcoming the Vikings' help in sponsoring programs to improve the lives of kids.
That isn't a conversation Carlson apparently wants to have.
A spokesman said last week that the relationship between Radisson and the Vikings remains suspended and the company's CEO would not be available to talk about it. Its mid-September statement remains on Carlson's website.
At just two sentences, there's not much to read.