Now in its third year, the NFL’s very public approach to breast cancer awareness has resulted in approximately $3 million in contributions to the cause, something that is unquestionably good. The campaign is not without its critics, though, who are asking a variety of questions. Some wonder whether, given the wide prevalence of public awareness of breast cancer, the NFL’s stage might more effectively be used to increase awareness within the male population– the league’s primary audience– of the risks associated with colon cancer, a disease with less attention but high incidence nationwide. Others, tired of the harsh pink visuals in the country’s most television-centric sport, constructively wonder whether the campaign might raise more money by letting people pay to somehow watch the game without seeing the neon-pink gloves, cleats, and other things, all of which seem to confound the color spectrum on even the highest definition televisions.
None of these critiques question the fundamentals of the NFL’s breast cancer awareness campaign, which is what makes the latest inquiry stand out. In an article posted last week, Business Insider asked, “Why is the NFL profiting off of breast cancer?” That doesn’t sound too good. The article explains that, while on-field pink equipment items are sold at auction, with the proceeds going to the American Cancer Society (an organization dedicated to “research, education, advocacy, and service”), “it is less clear how much of the sales of pink gear in the NFL Shop go towards research.” The article continues:
According to the website, by purchasing pink items in the NFL Shop, fans can “support the fight against breast cancer with pink NFL breast cancer awareness gear.” Of course, there is a huge difference between supporting “awareness” and donating money to research. In the case of the former, most of the money ends up in the pockets of billionaire NFL owners.
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.
There’s more math to be done, though, because according to Charity Navigator, 70.8% of donations to the American Cancer Society go something called “Program Expenses,” which, according to the Business Insider article, is the designation for the organization’s research and educational programs. According to Business Insider, this means that “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).” On Business Insider’s math, even this probably is a generous estimate, since the American Cancer Society does more than just fund research, as evidenced by their mission statement, quoted above.
The NFL issued a response:
The NFL wanted to clarify their position. 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.
While the statement that “the NFL does not profit from the sale of pink merchandise” seems pretty unequivocal, the mention of a second “program,” A Crucial Catch, is but another rabbit hole into which this inquiry tumbles. ProFootballTalk has some elaboration on the league’s response, which it phrases as follows: “The league says that 100 percent of the net proceeds are devoted to covering the costs of the league’s ‘A Crucial Catch’ campaign or are donated to the American Cancer Society.” As PFT explains,
The key words are “net proceeds.” On one hand, it’s technically the profit that the league otherwise realizes. On the other hand, it’s a playground for accounting practices that can make the “net proceeds” whatever the league ultimately wants them to be.
Devoting a portion of the “net proceeds” to “covering the costs” of the “A Crucial Catch” campaign provides another opportunity for the bean counters to move the beans around in ways that reach a predetermined bottom line of beans.
The reality is that the sale of pink merchandise generates revenue that pays for the materials and pays the manufacturer and pays the employees involved in the process of making and selling the products and paying for all other costs relating to the creation of the merchandise and whatever is left over is used for donation and/or funding the league’s “A Crucial Catch” campaign, which means that part of the money from the sales helps reimburse the league for expenses arising from the campaign. Without access to the accounting documents and an accountant who can figure it all out, it’s impossible to tell whether and to what extent what otherwise would be “profit” is masquerading as “expense.”
The net result of this wordy venture is that we’ve realized the existence of a potentially somewhat shady “corporate responsibility” endeavor. This isn’t a surprise in and of itself. There’s not a lot more to say about it, though.
It is possible to offer some perspective on the NFL’s breast cancer campaign, however:
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.
While every little bit undoubtedly helps, it also makes sense to consider efficacy and efficiency in our charitable giving. Leaving the awareness-versus-research debate for another time and place, PFT’s more modest conclusion feels like an appropriate place to end this inquiry for now:
[B]uying pink [NFL] merchandise doesn’t appear to be a vehicle for devoting significant funds, in the grand scheme of things, to breast cancer research or the other objectives of the American Cancer Society.
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