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Ravens reach out to sponsors over Ray Rice case

The Baltimore Sun

As their corporate partners express concern about the Ray Rice case, the Ravens have been reaching out — courting them anew — to try to ensure that dozens of long-held relationships and the millions in revenue they provide remain intact.

In the strongest-worded statement from a Ravens sponsor yet, Southwest Airlines on Monday called the allegations of misconduct by NFL players "disturbing," adding that it was ready to "take prompt action," depending on the course of events.

The club, which sent an open message to sponsors and fans Monday, wants to be certain its fabric of about 100 sponsors — both local and national firms — does not begin to unravel over questions surrounding its handling of the Rice situation.

The Ravens and the NFL have come under mounting scrutiny over whether they reacted quickly enough and appropriately to punish Rice after the former top running back knocked his then-fiancee unconscious in February in an Atlantic City, N.J., casino elevator.

"Our partners have called us — we've also reached out to them," said Kevin Rochlitz, the teams' vice president of corporate sales and business development, on Monday. "At the end of the day, it's a horrible thing. We don't like it, but we're moving forward. We will be doing a lot more things in the community."

The team recently announced a partnership with the House of Ruth that includes a $600,000 donation, training for the players, and staff and promotional work on behalf of centers for abused women and children.

Rochlitz said the club would look for new opportunities to collaborate with Hopeline, a program of Verizon Wireless, a team sponsor. Under the program, no-longer-used wireless phones, accessories and cash grants are donated to agencies aiding domestic violence victims. In 2013, the Ravens held a cellphone recycling event at a game to benefit the program.

Rochlitz said no sponsors have sought to end the relationship with the team in the aftermath of the Rice case.

But sponsors have expressed increasing concern.

"Southwest is thoughtful in how it allocates its marketing resources and seeks to align with organizations that share the same cultures and values as we do," said Southwest in its statement. "When events happen that are counter to those values, we want to understand what happened and take appropriate action to protect our customers, our employees and our brand. We are monitoring the situation and will take prompt action should the need arise."

Southwest, which is the largest carrier out of Baltimore Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, said it is hopeful the NFL will enact real change. The Dallas-based airline has marketing agreements with the Ravens and Atlanta Falcons, but not with the league as a whole.

Owing partly to two Super Bowl wins, the Ravens have had a history of success attracting sponsors — a primary reason why the team has seemed to overachieve in revenues and estimated market value.

Baltimore doesn't rank near the top half of NFL cities in the size of its television market. But it often has ranked above the league median in annual revenues — an accomplishment that experts attribute partly to the franchise's success in selling suites and sponsorships.

The Ravens' franchise is valued at $1.5 billion, 10th among the NFL's 32 teams, according to Forbes' most recent annual survey.

Besides Southwest and Verizon Wireless, Ravens' sponsors include Under Armour, M&T Bank, T. Rowe Price, The Baltimore Sun and Giant Food. In May, M&T extended its naming-rights deal for the stadium the Ravens play in through 2027. The 10-year deal is valued at $60 million.

Several sponsors did not respond to requests for comment Monday afternoon.

Rochlitz estimated Monday that more than half of the sponsors have partnered with the club "for over six to eight years." He said some sponsors have asked "what direction we are going. I believe the organization acts with great integrity."

The Ravens' media strategy is aimed both at fans and skittish sponsors, said Howard Opinsky, executive vice president of Hill+Knowlton Strategies, a crisis communications firm.

"You have to look at what metrics really matter to you as a team owner," he said. "Customers, shareholders, stakeholders — you have to judge what the impact is on those groups."

Because the league is so profitable, there is little incentive for Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti or NFL commissioner Roger Gooddell to step down from their roles, he said.

If sponsors drop the team and fans stop buying tickets, though, Opinsky said, "that's a big motivator."

On, Sept. 9, the Ravens released a statement to sponsors, personal seat license holders and others saying: "We did not do all we should have done and no amount of explanation can remedy that."

Last Friday, ESPN reported that Ravens executives were aware of the severity of Rice's altercation with then-fiancee Janay Palmer but still conducted a months-long campaign for leniency from the judicial system and from the league.

The Ravens issued a point-by-point rebuttal to that report on Monday in the team's statement to fans and sponsors.

"As I stated in our letter to you on September 9, we did not do all we should have done, and no amount of explanation can remedy that," Bisciotti said in the statement. "But there has been no misdirection or misinformation by the Ravens."

Baltimore Sun reporter Colin Campbell contributed to this article.

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