Pink and the NFL

By now you've surely noticed there's something amiss on NFL fields this month. No, it's not that the Vikings are 4-2 or that half the AFC is 3-3. It's the pink. The pervasive, Pepto-Bismol shade of fuschia is absolutely everywhere. There's nowhere to look that isn't pink. It's on gloves. It's on wristbands. It's on the hats and whistles the officials wear. It's on arm sleeves too, and it's all bright, obnoxious pink.

Allegedly, it's all for a good cause. The NFL's "A Crucial Catch" program encourages all women over the age of 40 to get annual mammograms, a worthy cause if there ever was one. The league says in addition to raising awareness, the proceeds of special auctions and the sale of pink merchandise will benefit "the American Cancer Society's Community Health Advocates National Grants for Empowerment (CHANGE) program. The CHANGE program provides outreach and breast cancer screenings to women in underserved communities."

But is that really what happens? Business Insider doesn't think so. Author Cork Gaines wondered exactly how much of the money from the sale of pink gear actually makes its way to the American Cancer Society. The whole article in the link is a worthy read, but there are two particularly damning paragraphs:

When we contacted the NFL's online shop for clarification, we were told 5% of the sales are being donated to the American Cancer Society. If the pink products have a typical 100% mark-up at retail, that means the NFL is keeping 90% of the profit from the sale of Breast Cancer Awareness gear.

And then consider that only 70.8% of money the ACS receives goes towards research and cancer programs. So, for every $100 in sales of pink gear, only $3.54 is going towards research while the NFL is keeping approximately $45 (based on 100% mark-up).

Obviously, the $3.54 is a bad number, but I think $45 dollars is even worse. You're really keeping upwards of 90% of the money that people are spending under the assumption that they're giving money to cancer research? Yikes. But it gets worse.

Gaines gave the NFL the opportunity to respond, which they did, but perhaps they shouldn't have:

While they did not dispute the numbers above, a representative said the NFL does not profit from the sale of pink merchandise. Any money that is not donated to ACS is used to cover the costs of their breast cancer awareness program, A Crucial Catch. Also, the NFL says they have donated "more than $3 million" or approximately $1 million per year as a result of the program that began in 2009.

Well, $3 million is a much better number, right? Uh, maybe not, as points out.

The numbers the league has provided are that, since 2009, the sale of pink merchandise has raised more than $3 million for the American Cancer Society. That’s roughly $750,000 per year. Or roughly $23,500 per team.

For a league that generates billions of dollars in revenue every year, that’s not a very big number.

So, quick recap: the NFL wants its customers to buy pink gear to support breast cancer awareness and research, but very little of the money goes to cancer research. But the league isn't keeping the extra money! It's using the profits to coordinate what must be an unusually expensive program. What's more, NFL teams made the generous donation of $23,500 each per year dating back to 2009, or the equivalent of an employee who makes $11.75 an hour for 40 hours of work per week.

I don't resent the NFL for wanting to make money or support a cause, but it seems like there are so many ways that the campaign could be done better, and the idea of (perhaps) making money while supporting a cause strikes me as a little bit off message.  At any rate, I've never liked criticizing something without offering improvements, so here are two quick ones.

For starters, why an entire month of the schedule? That seems like overkill. Instead, couldn't the league take a smaller approach, highlighting a few games featuring a few players whose lives have been affected by cancer? Humanizing an issue is always a good step, and I think showcasing the personal lives of players directly affected by an issue might be as powerful of a statement as any pink hat might ever be.

Secondly, could the league support the cause in a different way? In Janesville, Wisconsin, where I live, a group called the Rock County Cancer Coalition uses its funds to support actual victims of cancer, providing them with money and transportation to their treatments, in addition to financing whatever additional needs may arise. Just from a marketing standpoint, it seems like donating to actual people who have actual needs would be more beneficial than supporting the nebulous idea of "awareness." Instead of pervasive pink, imagine a campaign that shows how many actual people have been aided by the NFL's donations. For my money, I think seeing a montage of faces of people whose lives were changed by a donation from the NFL would be many times as likely to make me donate to the cause as seeing Peyton Manning wearing pink wristbands.

In conclusion, while the campaign is admirable in intention (if the NFL's claims about where the money goes is to be believed, that is), the pink campaign still strikes me as overkill. I wish we could see more actual results instead of just a sea of pink ribbons, hats, and on-field apparel.

And to throw one last wrench in the works, there is some research that seems to indicate that using the color pink may actually hurt a cause more than it helps.

AnalysisJon MeerdinkNFL