NFL Goes Pink: Raising Awareness or Raising Profits?


Celebrating complete with pink gloves.

Want to raise awareness for a cause? 17.72 million viewers is a good start.

That’s how many tuned in to watch the Green Bay Packers dismantle the Houston Texans on NBC’s Sunday Night Football earlier this week. Nearly 18 million watched as Quarterback Aaron Rodgers guided his Packers down the field seamlessly and flawlessly, recording six touchdown passes in the process.

Wide receiver James Jones caught two touchdowns while sporting especially made pink gloves and cleats in honor of breast cancer awareness month. Many others on both teams donned similar pink apparel, and there’s no doubt you’ve seen players on your hometown team decked out in pink throughout the month. Perhaps Zeta Tau Alpha volunteers outside the stadium have even handed you a pink ribbon.

The pink equipment is part of the NFL’s ongoing relationship with the American Cancer Society (ACS) to promote the importance of women 40 and older having an annual mammogram. Other charities, like PR-radioactive Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation, benefit from players who auction off their pink memorabilia for a charity of their own choosing.

The collaboration began in 2009 and purports to have raised $3 million for ACS — approximately $1 million per year — through merchandise sales and equipment auctions. Yet many wonder if plastering pink across jerseys, cleats, and other gear does more harm than good. Does it bring awareness to the disease or paradoxically to the awareness itself?

A Crucial Catch

“The pink drives me nuts,” Cynthia Ryan, an 18-year survivor of breast cancer told Kevin Begos of the Associate Press during last year’s NFL campaign. “It’s the cheeriness I can’t stand.”

Activists who agree with Ryan call it “pinkwashing.” The term describes a company or organization that sells and profits from pink colored products.

San Francisco-based Breast Cancer Action bills itself as the watchdog of the breast cancer movement and has called campaigns similar to the NFL’s into question. They launched “Think Before You Pink” in 2002 in response to concern about the overwhelming number of pink ribbon products and promotions flooding the market.

“Many corporations are profiting by linking their products to a pink ribbon,” explains Executive director Karuna Jaggar. “They benefit financially and they benefit from the positive association of linking their company with a worthy cause.” She continues, saying women are not benefiting equally from these campaigns proven by the increase of women diagnosed with breast cancer.

Jaggar said the pink movement served its purpose 20 years ago when there was still a need to raise awareness. Today, the case can be made that people are well aware of the disease, and efforts should be focused directly on research. “You would be hard pressed to find someone who is not aware of breast cancer today,” says Jaggar. “We need to move beyond awareness to action that makes a measurable difference in the lives of women living with breast cancer and at risk of the disease.”

This puts BCA and survivors like Ryan at odds with the NFL. But this isn’t the first time the relationship between ACS and the NFL has been criticized.

Business Insider discovered that a mere five percent of online sales from pink gear go to ACS. The publication concluded that if Breast Cancer Awareness gear has a typical 100-percent mark-up at retail, the NFL keeps 90-percent of the profit from the sale of pink merchandise.

The NFL did not dispute those numbers to Business Insider, but clarified that they do not profit from the sale of pink gear. NFL spokesman, Brian McCarthy, reiterated their position in an email:

The NFL does not profit from the sale of pink merchandise. All money the NFL would normally receive from merchandise sales goes to support this program, either through direct funding to American Cancer Society or covering the costs of the program, which is called A Crucial Catch.

The American Cancer Society, too, insisted they do not profit from the campaign. National Director of Media Relations, Judy Fortin, explained in an email:

All money raised since 2011 through A Crucial Catch supports the Society’s Community Health Advocates National Grants for Empowerment (CHANGE) program. This program provides outreach and breast cancer screenings to women who need them in the following NFL team markets: Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Camden, Charlotte, Chicago, Cleveland, Denver, Detroit, Freeport, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Kansas City, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, Seattle and Washington, DC.

She continued by explaining that their 2011 campaign reached more than 151 million viewers, including 58 million women age 18 and older. This, however, also assumes these viewers weren’t already aware of one of society’s most prevalent cause-based campaigns. It also seems “reached” simply means someone watched an NFL game during Breast Cancer Awareness month. Regardless, it’s impossible to measure exactly how many woman received a mammogram as a result of the campaign, making it even more difficult to determine if the campaign is an effective, life-saving tool, or a contrived opportunity for the occasionally PR-troubled NFL (concussions, anyone?) to look good.

Still, the question of whether or not money raised would be better utilized if given directly toward research rather than awareness remains.

Intelligent Giving

The NFL aside, ACS alone has faced criticism for its budgeting priorities. Charity Navigator, a non-profit “guide to intelligent giving,” gives ACS an overall two out of four-star rating. They received high marks for accountability and transparency; however, their financial performance leaves something to be desired.

Vice President of Charity Navigator, Sandra Miniutti explained:

The rating is low because [ACS] spends a large portion of its budget on fundraising…Specifically, the ACS spends nearly 22-percent on fundraising, whereas most of the 6,000 charities we rate spend 10-percent or less

Charity Navigator’s financial performance metrics consider program, administrative, and fundraising expenses, as well as fundraising efficiency, primary revenue and program expenses growth, and work capital ratio in their evaluations. They found that ACS spends 21.9 percent ($208,168,978) on fundraising expenses and 70.8 percent ($671,567,326) on program expenses. That’s the amount of the budget spent on programs and services they exist to provide.

“Another problem it faces financially is declining revenues and also a drop in spending on programs,” adds Miniutti.

“The Slightest Doubt”

So is the production of pink jerseys, field post cushions and coins serving the mission of offinding a cure for breast cancer?

One determining factor could be cost. The NFL says it raises approximately $1 million per year as a result of the campaign. Is that more or less than the cost of producing pink merchandise? Unfortunately, the NFL doesn’t know.

“Our office doesn’t make the items,” wrote McCarthy in an email, adding NFL licensees make the products. Although considering the number of jerseys, pieces of equipment and other pink apparel we see on television and in sports stores, one could assume it’s not far off from that $1 million, which would seem to offset the fundraising aspect of the campaign.

Meanwhile, Charity Navigator isn’t convinced the campaign is the best use of resources. Miniutti again explains their position:

Cause-related marketing can be a great way for charities to raise some funds and awareness. But we think that if a donor truly wants to bring about sustainable and lasting change, then the best option is to donate directly to a charity that’s been vetted. So if a consumer’s understanding of how a pink football is going to benefit a breast cancer charity is murky at best, then it probably isn’t a purchase worth making. Because as we’re seeing with this case, there isn’t a whole lot of transparency when it comes to cause-related marketing. It is difficult at best to follow the money.

Therein lies the answer. If a consumer has even the slightest doubt that their money is not going to their intended destination, then the purchase is not worthwhile. With the growing skepticism surrounding the NFL’s relationship with ACS, the NFL and its licensees would be better served by donating the $1 million they claim to raise annually directly toward research and providing screenings. Well-meaning groups, like Zeta Tau Alpha can go do something a little more concrete than handing out ribbons. Let’s face it. Wearing pink won’t cure breast cancer anymore than an inspiring YouTube video will solve African strife.

Meanwhile, the American Cancer Society can direct their focus back into what it is we all want — a cure for a disease that impacts hundreds of thousands of women. And they can do it all without Aaron Rodgers wearing a pink Green Bay Packers hat.

About Joe Baur

Joe Baur is a freelance writer, filmmaker and satirist with a diverse array of interests including travel, adventure, craft beer, health, urban issues, culture and politics. He ranks his allegiances in the order of Cleveland, the state of Ohio and the Rust Belt, and enjoys a fried egg on a variety of meats. Joe has a B.A. in Mass Communication with a focus on production from Miami University. Follow him at and on Twitter @BaurJoe
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