NFL sponsor wrath: Can they change the league?

Sponsor signage at the new Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., Aug. 13, 2014
David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Getting hammered by fans and the media for its handling of the respective Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson domestic and child abuse cases is one thing.

But when the NFL hears harsh words from some of the sponsors that provide billions in revenue each year to the league, that's a more troubling situation, say experts.

"I think that team owners and the league are taking notice," said Mark Conrad, professor of sports business at Fordham University.

"The displeasure is the first significant event on their pocketbooks," he said.

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Statements released Tuesday from companies such as Anheuser-Busch, PepsiCo, McDonald's, Visa and Campbell Soup, used words like "disappointed," "concerned" and "closely following" to describe their attitudes on how the NFL is managing the cases of Rice and Peterson.

And while no sponsors have said they would pull out of any deals with the NFL, the statements will impact the league on how it reacts to such incidents in the future, argued Conrad.

"The sponsors' reaction is not a wholesale change," Conrad said. "They're not trying to get rid of the commissioner (Roger Goodell) but for the league to look at its policies on these issues."

NFL sponsors had little choice but to come out as they did, said John Bonini, marketing director at Impact Branding & Design.

"They have absolutely every right to criticize the NFL over its handling of the situations because it directly reflects on their brands as well," Bonini said.

Hitting league's revenues

Will NFL advertisers pull sponsorships?
Will NFL advertisers pull sponsorships?

The NFL's revenue from corporate sponsorships is huge.

According to IEG, the National Football League and its 32 teams took in a record-setting $1.07 billion in sponsorship revenue for the 2013 season—an increase of 5.7 percent over the 2012 season.

Anheuser-Busch alone has a six-year, $1.2 billion contract with the NFL.

Read MoreHow the NFL makes the most money of any pro sport

And when those companies talk to the NFL in public like they've done, the league has to listen, said Larry Chiagouris, a professor of marketing at Pace University.

"Even as prestigious as the NFL brand is, there are other ways for companies to spend their money," he said.

Chiagouris added that the discontent expressed by sponsors might not hit the NFL's revenue right away but further down the line when contract renewals and extensions come up.

He said the companies would likely want to verify that the NFL is making changes to address player conduct—and if nothing is changed, the deals might go away or be cut back substantially.

However, Wendy Patrick, a lawyer and business ethics professor at San Diego State University, said not every NFL sponsor feels a need to issue a response.

She explained that the sponsors had no way of knowing about the players' problems until they became public—and that leads to a more cautious approach.

"Not all of them have jumped ship," Patrick said. "Some consider players and teams valuable and they will take a wait-and-see attitude first on what the NFL may do and suffer a bit of criticism before reacting."

Calls and emails to several sponsors and the NFL for comment were not returned.

Will NFL change?

Players are role models - like it or not: NFL's McNair
Players are role models - like it or not: NFL's McNair

Though hardly a financial Armageddon, some caution has been somewhat dismissed.

The Radisson Hotels chain, based in Minnesota, has suspended its sponsorship of the NFL's Minnesota Vikings, at least for now.

And Nike suspended its sponsorship of Vikings' running back Peterson and pulled all of his sports gear from store shelves in Minnesota.

This was after Peterson was suspended last week from playing on Sunday, reinstated on Monday to play this coming week but suspended again Wednesday by the Vikings.

And the list of companies issuing statements or dropping sponsorships will likely grow, said Pace University's Chiagouris.

"Consumer groups and other people are smelling blood on this," he said. "They're putting pressure on sponsors and I don't see that slowing down at all."

As for the NFL, analysts say it needs to get out in front of the issues of domestic violence and child abuse to avoid public relation disasters like this one.

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"With a female fan base of 45 percent, it appears that the NFL now believes it has an incentive to respond in a way that it has not recognized before," said Ellen Staurowsky, a professor of sports management at Drexel University.

"But it's hard to say if they will," she said

Impact's Bonini is betting against the league.

"Unfortunately the NFL hasn't shown they are capable of learning from the past, so there's really no indication that they'll do so moving forward," he said.

—By's Mark Koba