The NFL’s “A Crucial Catch” Campaign: Genuine Charity or Underhanded Marketing?

In recent years, the National Football League (NFL) has observed each October as National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. For viewers tuning into NFL games in October, they have likely seen pink football equipment such as caps, gloves and wristbands worn by players to commemorate the month. On the field, they will also see breast cancer awareness logos and cheerleaders dressed in pink and sporting pink pompoms. The league has even produced memorable commercials featuring popular players as part of its campaign:

While brands have long tried to alter their perception by aligning themselves to charitable causes, the question must be asked as to why the NFL, a professional sport played only by men, would choose breast cancer awareness for a major communications campaign? Is it a genuine attempt to raise awareness for a disease that affects women? Or does the NFL have an ulterior motive in trying to broaden its fan base and viewership to women? Well, it depends on who you ask.

According to the NFL, “More than $8 million has been raised for the American Cancer Society through the partnership… The NFL does not profit from the sale or auction of pink merchandise.” (NFL, 2016). The NFL clearly views the “A Crucial Catch” campaign as a charitable endeavor that raises money to help raise awareness about a terrible disease.

However, there are plenty of detractors who would disagree. Basen (2013) writes, “Research suggests that the NFL and its corporate partners are more concerned with enhancing their public images — especially among women — and ultimately revenues, than they are with addressing breast cancer, and they seek to manipulate NFL fandom in the name of public health.” To buttress this point, Basen (2013) discusses “cause-related marketing” where brands have used marketing campaigns to benefit charities as well as themselves.

Other detractors argue that if the NFL was truly interested in supporting breast cancer awareness, the league would give a much greater percentage of its revenues to the cause. Notte (2015) argues how the money raised by the NFL so far in this campaign is extremely small when compared to the billions of dollars the league makes in revenue each year. He states, “It’s become such a brazen publicity stunt that each year, we’re treated to a different story about how the NFL raises just about no money to increase cancer awareness, education or screenings.”

While it would be impossible to determine the true motives of the NFL’s “A Crucial Catch” campaign, there is ample evidence for both its supporters and detractors to debate.

References

Basen, R. (2013). Pink-shaded marketing. Sports On Earth. Retrieved from: http://www.sportsonearth.com/article/62332742/

NFL.com. (2016). NFL supports National Breast Cancer Awareness Month with A Crucial Catch campaign. Retrieved from: https://nflcommunications.com/Pages/NFL-Supports-National-Breast-Cancer-Awareness-Month-With-A-Crucial-Catch-Campaign.aspx

Notte, J. (2015). The NFL’s pink October is a publicity stunt. MarketWatch. Retrieved from: http://www.marketwatch.com/story/the-nfls-pink-october-is-a-publicity-stunt-2015-10-21

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21 Responses to The NFL’s “A Crucial Catch” Campaign: Genuine Charity or Underhanded Marketing?

  1. Marc says:

    Hi Shane,

    Very nice job with this. I think you identify the issues solidly in your piece. The amount contributed by the NFL (relative to their overall brand value and profits) is a joke. I would gladly pay $8 million for the marketing benefit they have received. My wife’s cousin (now in her second breast cancer battle) participated in the NFL campaign during her original treatment a decade ago while her husband was employed as a coach by one of the teams. She was both willing in her role and clearly (from my perspective) lifted by it.

    That said, I think you also point to a broader issue: breast cancer is not about pink. In fact, the connotations of pink are about as opposite from the effects of treatment as you can get. While she, my mom, and another close friend all embraced the pink ribbon to an extent during their treatment, they were also keenly aware of how shallow and marketing-driven it has become.

    Finally, while my boys have pretty much always added some form of pink adornment to their uniforms during October — usually pink skate laces — we certainly do so with more trepidation in recent years because of the commercialization.

    Still, my current Facebook header is pink for October, so perhaps there is more upside than down.

    It’s nice to read your work, my friend.

    • Shane says:

      Hello Marc,

      Thanks for your comment! It really is an open question as to what the motives of the NFL really are in this case. We both recognize the NFL is far more capable of making a more substantial monetary contribution to breast cancer research and awareness. Each NFL team could donate $1 million each for a total of $32 million and it would still be pocket change for each of these organizations, but it would demonstrate a much deeper and sincere commitment to the cause.

      With regard to the effect of the “A Crucial Catch” campaign on breast cancer awareness, I keep being reminded of the old saying that there is no such thing as bad publicity. What I mean by this is that I for one do not see any downside for cancer awareness as a result of the NFL’s activities. If it gets people talking about cancer and proactive screening then that is a good thing regardless of the NFL’s true motivations. The NFL may be benefiting from the campaign, but even if one life is saved this campaign then it will have been worth it. People just need to be aware that the NFL’s brand is also benefiting from the campaign as well.

      Cheers, Shane

  2. Mitzi says:

    Great points. As a consumer who knows women that have dies of breast cancer I have always appreciated the NFL campaign. I feel that awareness is a large part of the battle to treat women and get them screened early. I understand that the profits that come from the NFL month are little in comparison to their profits but I think that is okay. It is not their sole responsibility to raise money so I don’t think they should be criticized. It is also a good way for players to express feelings about women and breast cancer because many probably have been personally touched by the disease. I also don’t believe its a ploy to broaden their female fan base because they are already female fans who like football for many different reasons. I think its a good way to connect with female and male fans because both are affected by the disease in different ways.
    Thanks for this post!

    • Shane says:

      Hello Mitzi,

      I appreciate your comment and I am truly sorry for the loss of those women you knew.

      Glad to know that you appreciate the work of the “A Crucial Catch” campaign. I agree on the point that the effort raises awareness so therefore it is doing a service for the cause. Hopefully the NFL will go even further in its commitment in future years and will put questions about its motives to rest.

      Cheers, Shane

  3. Cecilia says:

    Shane,

    Your post is important to me, as a consumer, as a woman and as a two-time breast cancer survivor. I struggle with the commercialization of the pink campaigns (in fact, I question the selection of this color to be associated with the disease to begin with but let’s save that for a different discussion). I am not sure if this uneasiness has to do with the two mastectomies I have had during the month of September six years apart and that much of October was spent recovering both of those years. Or, it could also be a physical explanation, my brain may associate a cascade of pink products and cues rolled out this month with the sickness caused by chemo. Either way, this is a personal topic and I appreciate you bringing it forth. While I am inclined to think that this campaign is a calculated move by the NFL intended to generate goodwill and support among women, as Marc and Mitzi point out, it is associated with benefits. What’s often forgotten is that men are also affected by breast cancer (albeit at a much lower rate). If the intention is to bring awareness to this disease that is growing at an alarming rate, then perhaps the NFL should educate their mainly male audience about ways for early detection among them? It’s hard to imagine that such a campaign would have the same appeal; in my opinion support for the claim that the motivation is not solely to rally behind a good cause.

    Thanks for a great post,

    Cecilia

    • Shane says:

      Hello Cecilia,

      Thank you for sharing that you are a two-time breast cancer survivor. You are an amazing inspiration!

      You bring up an excellent point that breast cancer is not exclusive to women. Many men are also affected by the disease too, which many people may be unaware of. While the NFL may be benefiting in intangible ways from the campaign, they are one of the most powerful and influential organizations in this country and having their voice as part of the conversation I feel is better than not having their participation. I just hope they deepen their commitment and strengthen their resolve in future years and that this is not a temporary community/social responsibility campaign.

      Thanks again.

      Cheers, Shane

  4. Smith says:

    Hi!

    Today, there was a large argument on sports talk about this very topic and a NFL kicker named Brown who admitted to domestic violence and was suspended 1 game. The argument by a female was,… “How can you say you support women by wearing your pink socks and ribbons but allow domestic violence to go on?”

    This displays the danger of conducting CSR campaigns and not fully backing up the vision you put out there (in this case supporting women).

    Marla

  5. Mona says:

    Hi Shane,
    What an insightful and thought-provoking post you have written about. This topic has come across my mind from time to time and I have always wondered about the ulterior motive for the NFL to promote National Breast Cancer Awareness. Additionally, the soccer league my son plays for has requested for all the boys to wear pink socks for their October games. Although the notion of this is great, but how much does one fully understand the meaning behind the awareness? Are the boys wearing pink because it is more about the style?
    Perhaps it truly is more about the public image than the actual generosity to bring light about the awareness.

    Great post!
    Mona Salama

    • Shane says:

      Hi Mona,

      Thanks for your comment. You and several other people have commented that this is something they have often wondered so I hope I was was able to provide some food for thought on it. We’ll never know the NFL’s true motivations but it’s good to ask the questions.

      Cheers, Shane

  6. Felicia says:

    Hey Shane,

    This post is very interesting. I actually never thought about it in a negative way. I thought this was done because almost half (44.8%) of individuals that watch or attend an NFL game are women.

    Even if one thought the NFL did this for their own brand image. One has to think, well duh. A brand is not going to align themselves with a cause that they feel may alienate their audience or make them look bad.

    I like that the other’s mentioned that men to get diagnosed with breast cancer (even if it’s at a lower rate). To me it doesn’t matter why they are doing. I think it’s great that they plan on helping in anyway they possibly can.

    • Shane says:

      Hi Felicia,

      Thanks for reading my blog post and leaving a comment. Yes, many women watch football and they are a target demographic for the NFL. I guess the question is whether the NFL is looking out for their best interests or whether they are trying to garner loyalty to their brand. We’ll never know, but at a minimum I think it’s a good thing to have such a powerful organization participate in raising breast cancer awareness.

      Cheers, Shane

  7. Alejandro says:

    Hi Shane,

    Great write up! This is a topic that stirs up good discussion on an important issue, especially because the motives are embedded so deep in a towering business machine that one is left wondering about the real truth. I’m a football fan, and while I don’t agree with all their processes, I think this brings an important issue to the surface. Even if it only touches the depth of the topic on a small scale, it helps bring awareness and money to an important cause. The NFL may not want to invest beyond these basic measures because it is beyond their expertise and in the end no matter what they do, they will still be criticized. Even though they benefit from a publicity standpoint I think it seems to do more good than harm. Hopefully that is the case. Thanks for sharing!

  8. Anthony says:

    Hi Shane,

    Really nice blog. It raises many interesting questions. Are we talking about social responsibility or are we talking about corporate obligation? I want to believe that the “A Crucial Catch” campaign is coming from a genuine place helping to bring awareness to breast cancer. The average NFL players’ salary was $2 million a couple years ago. If that is the average salary, I can only imagine how much the NFL, as a whole generates in revenue. Whatever it is, the NFL needs to give back financially.

    Anthony

    • Shane says:

      Well said, Anthony! I’m in complete agreement. As I mentioned to Marc, a far greater demonstration of the NFL’s commitment to breast cancer research would be if every NFL team/owner donated $1 million for a grand total of $32 million. This would help put to rest questions about the ulterior motives of the NFL in this case.

      Cheers, Shane

  9. Lydia says:

    Hi Shane,

    What a compelling title! I was hooked and had to read more as soon as I saw the word “underhanded.” The NFL and Breast Cancer charities are an awkward match. I thought so from the start and when the hot pink shoes and uniform paraphernalia was rolled out a few years ago, it was beyond overkill. Such a contrivance on the part of the NFL! Maybe this effort is a clever way to counterbalance all of the violence against women that takes place during the Superbowl. That said, no matter what the intent is, I’m glad that a cause that impacts us all is benefitting. The NFL just needs to tone it way down with the pink and commercials of players getting involved in the lives of women who need breast exams. It’s gotten to the point where it feels a bit creepy; there is a better way to draw awareness to this cause.

    Thank you!

    Lydia

    • Shane says:

      Hello Lydia!

      Thanks for reading my post and commenting. I agree that at the end of the day, cancer awareness & research benefits from having the NFL’s participation, regardless of their motivations. In the end, I feel that that is the most important aspect to this CSR campaign.

      Cheers, Shane

  10. Elysha says:

    This is a really great post and I love that you’ve selected this topic, because I often wondered how much of the revenue from all the pink NFL merchandise actually goes to support the breast cancer awareness cause. Now I know. Despite the concerns about the motivation behind the NFL backing this cause, clearly there are no losers here.

    Elysha

  11. Sandra says:

    Hi Shane,
    I really appreciate your blog post. I think all of us has someone in our life that has been effected by breast cancer. Any tactic or campaign that can bring more attention to it is great. I have a beautiful friend that is a cancer survivor and every year I donate money for her walk to Santa Barbara. I am glad that the NFL has chosen to support this worthy cause.