PHOENIX (Reuters) - As fans gather for Sunday's Super Bowl in Arizona, billboard trucks are expected to travel around Phoenix with messages reminding revelers of what critics see as an inadequate NFL response to domestic violence involving star NFL players.
Dispatched by an anti-sexism group to the airport, hotels and other venues, the trucks will bear slogans including "55 Cases of Domestic Violence Unanswered" and call for commissioner Roger Goodell to resign.
"Plain and simple: The NFL doesn't have the leadership to fix their violence against women problem, and Goodell needs to go for that to change," said Nita Chaudhary, cofounder of the group UltraViolet, which claims Goodell has ignored 55 incidents of domestic violence involving NFL players.
The NFL has faced criticism for its handling of domestic violence after Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice knocked out his then-fiancee in an elevator. Rice last year was first suspended for two games and later suspended indefinitely.
The initial punishment drew fire for being too soft. That criticism has echoed in Phoenix ahead of the Super Bowl between the New England Patriots and the Seattle Seahawks, even as the most popular U.S. sports league continues to court female fans.
"The NFL is big business, I get that," said Pat Riegel, a Philadelphia woman who flew to Phoenix for the Super Bowl with a fellow female Eagles fan.
"But you can't cover up something like that," she said. "They probably could've done a bit better ... In the end they did, but they were pressured."
Over a generation, women have turned from casual NFL fans to an important demographic, and females now comprise about 45 percent of the NFL audience on TV and at stadiums. That is important for a league that aims to boost annual revenue from $9 billion now to $25 billion by 2027.
The league has had some success attracting women in recent years, creating NFL clothing designed for women and sending players to charity events on women's issues.
Compounding the challenges the NFL faces in growing its female fan base, the league saw a slight dip in the number of women viewing televised games this season even as male viewership rose, according to Nielsen data.
The data, which did not pinpoint a cause, showed male viewers of regular 2014 season games rose by some 230,000 to an average of 11.56 million per game, while women viewers fell slightly to 6.06 million from 6.09 million the year before.
To be sure, annual viewership fluctuations have been common, but 2014 marked the first time in four years that men and women's viewership have not trended in the same direction. NFL officials did not immediately respond to queries about the numbers.
Mary Jo Kane, a University of Minnesota sports sociology professor, said the dip in women viewers could have many causes, including publicity over head injuries and drunken driving cases.
"One could argue that the whole issue of concussion and being concerned about their sons and not watching it could also be an issue," Kane said. "... You have a lot of negative issues going on," Kane said.
Some 20,000 former players have brought a class-action lawsuit against the NFL that accuses it of having encouraged them to continue playing with brain injuries. The league denies concealing information related to head or brain injuries that might occur while playing.
In addition, at least nine NFL players have been arrested for DUI since the start of last year, according to media reports.
Goodell has unveiled a tougher discipline policy for off-field misconduct, and has hired four female senior advisers to help shape domestic violence policies.
Among them is Lisa Friel, who led the New York County Sex Crimes Prosecution Unit for more than a decade.
"He is not just looking for the media attention to go away or for this to die down and then go back to business as usual," Friel said of Goodell.
But after the Rice incident, one notable sponsor, Procter & Gamble Co's Crest, said in October it would no longer offer pink mouth guards to players for Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
Other sponsors have expressed concerns to the league, underlining the risk to the NFL, which has almost maxed out its U.S. male audience, from any perception among women it has mishandled domestic violence cases.
Marti Barletta, author of "Marketing to Women," said the league stumbled early on, but she hailed a "No More" campaign against domestic violence launched in October.
A chilling "No More" ad, featuring a 911 call from a domestic violence victim who pretends to be ordering pizza because her attacker is with her, will air during Sunday's game.
"If women see Roger Goodell is making a good faith effort to get caught up on the norms of 2015 culture, I think they will come around," Barletta said. Football "is just too much a part of American culture."
Reporting by Daniel Wallis; Additional reporting by Steve Ginsburg in Washington; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Cynthia Osterman