Originally Published: October 9, 2012 11:10 p.m.
Never has a non-catch accomplished so much. When the scab referees signaled a touchdown that snatched a victory from the Green Bay Packers and handed it to the Seattle Seahawks, you knew the end of the NFL lockout of its referees was imminent. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell summed up the lockout - and its embarrassing consequences - by saying, "when you go through something painful like this, it's painful for everybody." However, pain is a little bit like experience; it can only be appreciated by those who are directly affected by it. Having said that, here are four things other sports leagues should have learned from watching the fiasco initiated by the NFL.
Your Brand Isn't Bulletproof
While the NFL was already struggling with the fallout from Bountygate and concussion lawsuits - PR disasters not of their own making - the last thing the league needed was another off-field controversy that could further damage their already tarnished brand. Yet, that's exactly what they got. To make matters worse, the referee lockout was their own doing.
The replacement refs proved to be as incompetent as even the most negative forecasters predicted. The missed calls and non-calls led to negative reactions from fans, followed by critical comments and tweets from the players, public statements by owners, and even disapproving comments from league partners such as ESPN. Before long, the NFL brand, which once seemed bulletproof, was under siege.
Multi-billion Dollar Businesses Can't Afford to be Cheap
The referees were asking for an additional $3.3 million, a mere 0.3 percent of the NFL's approximately $9 billion per-year in revenue, or $100,000 per team. While it's easy to spend someone else's money, under the circumstances, that sum is miniscule, by any standard of measurement. The lockout suggests that despite their incredible financial success, Goodell and the owners may not understand business, or at least they didn't when they started playing hardball with the NFLRA.
Following the non-interception in Seattle and the outrage that followed, owners received the equivalent of a Harvard Business School degree. The agreement that was reached between the NFL and the referees was not because the NFL thought they were in danger of losing the battle, but because the lockout was becoming bad for business.
Integrity Trumps the Bottom Line
The fact that two replacement referees standing less than a yard from each other in the end zone can make the exact opposite call - while the real refs were sitting at home because the NFL was squeezing nickels (see paragraph above) - is all you need to know about the lack of integrity in the game during the first three weeks of the season.
We won't even mention the effect replacement referees had on the gamblers - legal and otherwise. Not that anyone at league headquarters would admit it publicly, but the gaming industry is the prime reason for the NFL's popularity. While it may seem like an oxymoron to mention gambling and integrity in the same sentence, if bettors couldn't rely on the integrity of a game's outcome, interest in the NFL might have waned, except for those who were willing to bet on when a replacement ref would make the wrong call.
Do Not Allow Labor Negotiations to Reach the Eleventh Hour
You can preach this one forever and it will fall on deaf ears. Time and time again, labor negotiations come down to the deadline. Be forewarned: Procrastination and delay can be hazardous to the health of your sport.
History shows that any labor interruption - lockout or strike - in professional sports can damage not only the bottom line, but the perception fans and the media have toward your sport. The lockout of the referees could have been avoided if negotiations had begun earlier, had not been so confrontational, and had been about money instead of power. Once the sides - especially the NFL - took intractable stances, reasonable compromises became more difficult. It took three months to reach a compromise, one that was eminently attainable before the lockout even began.
The regular referees are back. Before their clock strikes midnight, other sports leagues should learn from the NFL's experience. Don't wait for an embarrassment similar to what occurred at CenturyLink Field to resolve a labor dispute.
Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, and Minor League Baseball team owner. He is a Professor and Chair of the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and is a contributing author to the Business of Sports Network. Jordan can be reached at email@example.com