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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell's fumbling of the Ray Rice domestic abuse case threatens to send women, an increasingly influential group of the National Football League's fan base, scrambling to hit the off button on their remote controls, sports business analysts say.
Over the span of a generation, women have gone from being casual fans to meaningful customers of the league and now account for 45 percent of the NFL audience, between television and stadiums. Some 6 million women tune in to NFL games every week.
"The NFL has to be really concerned about losing that demographic," said David Carter, executive director of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California.
Goodell, the NFL commissioner since 2006, admitted he "didn't get it right" in July when he suspended Rice for two games after he knocked out his then-fiancée with one punch to the face.
Only after a video of the blow surfaced this week did the Baltimore Ravens release their three-time Pro Bowl running back while the league suspended him indefinitely.
Goodell's response to that video has raised questions about the extent of his knowledge of Rice's domestic violence and why the NFL did not act more forcefully earlier. To address those questions, the NFL ordered an independent investigation this week.
"It's probably the biggest marketing nightmare the NFL has faced in recent memory," said Brad Adgate, senior vice president, director of research at Horizon Media, an advertising services agency.
For a league that brings in $9 billion in revenue annually, getting the message right has been a big part of its powerhouse business model. Adgate predicts that the NFL's good record bodes well for a recovery from this fumble.
"Normally the NFL has been very smart about protecting the brand and image of the league. This time they misfired," he said. "The NFL will probably be able to set the record straight on what happened and find a template. Their track record is such they will do the right thing."
Over the years, the NFL has actively courted women fans, creating female-oriented NFL clothing such as that presented in the "2014 Style Lounge." Fantasy football leagues have also led more women to the real game, experts say.
But if the NFL fails to handle the fallout properly, Carter said there will probably be demonstrations and high-profile statements on how the NFL drops the ball on important issues.
"That will just not resonate with female fans, but obviously sponsors and advertisers don't want protests out in front of stadiums," he said. "The NFL doesn't want this so out of control it compromises their female fan base."
Women in Congress joined the chorus of concerned citizens this week, when a bipartisan group of 16 female senators wrote a letter to the league urging a zero-tolerance policy on domestic violence.
Rice was indicted in March by a grand jury on third-degree aggravated assault, but the charge was dropped because now-wife Janay Palmer declined to testify against him. He ultimately agreed to court-supervised counseling as part of a pre-trial intervention program.
Marc Ganis, president and founder of Chicago-based sports business consulting firm SportsCorp, said he believes the NFL will ultimately emerge unscathed because the league "is extremely sensitive to the needs and interests of women in our society."
"About three weeks after his decision (to suspend Rice for two games), Roger Goodell came out with a statement that he got it wrong and the league got it wrong," said Ganis. "He said it was an enormous issue and announced a new strict policy on domestic abuse."
"That is exactly the kind of thing we want from our leaders in this country."
Additional reporting by Jennifer Saba in New York; editing by Mary Milliken and G Crosse