The NFL, Replacement Refs & Public Relations

The NFL recently had what appeared to be quite the crisis on its hands. Almost a year after bouncing back from a lockout that forced the league to cancel the entire 2011 preseason the NFL was once again dealing with a labor dispute – this time with its officials.

Unable to reach an agreement before the start of the 2012 campaign, the league’s owners ultimately locked out the officials. To replace the unionized referees, the NFL brought up lower-tier officials as replacements. The results were less than ideal.

After the Monday Night Football nightmare, where the merits of the replacement referees were in question in front of a nationwide audience, the NFL took a major hit on social media.

A funny thing happened though, while social media sentiment dipped and the league’s integrity was called into question by major sports media outlets, ratings remained strong. Hall of Fame quarterback and current NFL analyst Steve Young went so far as saying that the country’s obsession with football put little pressure on the league to hammer out a deal.

Everything about the NFL now is inelastic for demand. There’s nothing they can do to hurt the demand for the game. So the bottom line is they don’t care. Player safety—doesn’t matter in this case. Bring in the Division III officials–-doesn’t matter. Because in the end, you’re still going to watch the game, we’re going to all complain and moan and gripe and say there’s all these problems, all the coaches say it, the players say it—doesn’t matter.

So just go ahead, gripe all you want. I’m going to rest. Let them eat cake. There’s nothing that changes the demand for the NFL … It doesn’t affect the desire for the game. If it affected the desire for the game, they’d come up with a few million dollars. (Deadspin)

On Wednesday, the league’s owners and officials reached an agreement and the full-time refs resumed their work on Thursday. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell went so far as to issue an apology to fans.

For a company that has taken some serious lumps as of late, both the long-term and short-term effects of the replacement ref ordeal seem minimal for the NFL – if only every business could be so lucky.

In a business where demand remains constant despite a seemingly watered down product, how much power does the customer really have?

(H/T Sports Illustrated, Deadspin, Adweek)

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