There’s no such thing as bad publicity – especially for the NFL

by Staff Writer

The failure of the replacement refs has gone viral. Not only does the NFL not seem to care, they may actually be benefiting from it…

After the botched call at the end of the game on Monday Night Football that gave the Seattle Seahawks a tainted victory over the visiting Green Bay Packers, both players and fans alike took to twitter and Facebook to voice their opinion. Opinions that hold no punches for the likes of Commissioner Goodell and company. And the shots just keep on coming

But it isn’t a single call that’s completely to blame. It’s a storm that’s been building for some time, beginning with the referee lockout before the preseason had even started. The NFL’s differences with the referee union (NFL wants them to take a pay cut) has extended into the regular season compelling the NFL to put inexperienced replacements into the job until the differences are resolved.

After a relatively uneventful week 1, eventually the inexperience of these replacements started to show through in week 2. Games slowed down, clear fouls were missed, bad calls were made, rules were ignored or forgotten and there was this general feeling that the replacement refs were losing control of games. The integrity of the league came under fire and more than a few made direct assertions that player safety was being compromised.

Both players and coaches were losing their patience.. and it showed. The NFL later issued a statement warning that some of the conduct towards the refs would not be tolerated.

Then week three started…

As if right on cue, the debacle continued to escalate right along with the impact replacement refs were having on games. Seemingly simple football rules took even longer to sort out (that is, if they got it right at all), more calls were blown or missed, and when Darrius Heyward-Bey was knocked unconscious with a nasty head injury (on an illegal helmet-to-helmet hit that was not penalized) and later brought to the hospital, the injury concerns went from hypothetical to very real.

The following (rather freak) occurrence during the Bucs/Cowboys game sums up the ref’s week 3 performance in a single animated gif:

The Sunday evening game had it all. A nationally televised rematch of last year’s AFC championship game. A chance for Baltimore’s redemption with some added emotional charge for the home team.

But instead of an epic match-up with all the pre-game hype a week 3 game can have, it was dominated by missed calls, wrong calls, dead-ball skirmishes, confusion over rules, and 24 penalties for 218 combined yards. To top it off, the final game-winning kick was so close, it almost demanded a second look. -Or at least an explanation, which is what Bill Belichick wanted when he grabbed an official who was running off the field as fast as he could.

As a big football and NFL fan, the game left a bad taste in my mouth. Neither team had a fair chance to prove they were the better of the two. The officials took it over, and ruined it. And as a fan of neither team I still felt cheated for having watched it.

Unfortunately, the worst had yet to come. Only, on Monday night,  it was 24 penalties for 245 yards this time, and the worst call so far this year was saved for the final play, which decided the game.

Seconds later, Twitter and Facebook exploded.

In the aftermath:

The events of Monday Night Football are so popular right now, a number of people that (until last night) hardly knew what a touchdown was, can break it down for you.  The social media world still hasn’t calmed down from the incident, and after hearing reports claiming up to $1 Billion in gambling money shifted as a result of the call, it gives the impression that’s not about to go away any time soon.

Even last night’s TV announcers (including the in studio “rules specialist”) might have been surprised to learn that (according to the NFL’s statement about the play) simultaneous catch is reviewable if it occurs in the end-zone. That begs the question: which is worse?  The not knowing the rules of replay, or knowing the rules and still getting the call wrong after multiple angles and looks?

On a personal note, even though I’m not a fan of either team, it really bothers me. It bothers me because I enjoy watching NFL games otherwise. It bothers me because it could happen to my team.

But most of all, it bothers me because, despite how bad the officiating has been, or how much criticism this one play causes the NFL, it probably won’t change a thing.

Why none of this matters to the NFL

The NFL makes most of its revenue through its television audience. Attendance makes up another (smaller) portion and is protected via blackouts (in markets where games don’t sell out). Not that it matters, because game attendance certainly hasn’t been (and won’t be) affected by these events.

Television ratings so far this year have been just fine for the NFL. Even though the opening game was beat out by Bill Clinton’s speech at the Democratic National Convention, week 1′s Sunday games broke a number of NFL ratings records. Week 2, ratings held strong, despite minor grumblings about the length of games (particularly the 1st Sunday Night game), and it was more of the same for week 3.

It will be interesting to see how the ratings play out for next week’s games, but the truth is, even this doesn’t really matter. While ratings are the key to NFL’s cash cow (TV contracts), if a temporary drop in ratings happens due to the inexperienced officiating, they can chalk it up as just that…temporary. Networks will still see the reach potential of the NFL when the contracts are renewed especially if a deal is reached by then.

Still, ratings aren’t likely to drop… Steve Young said it best:

“The demand for the NFL is inelastic. There’s nothing [the NFL] can do to hurt its demand, so they don’t care….people keep watching.”

In fact, the NFL might (actually) benefit from this…

Even if Steve Young is wrong, and NFL fans begin to tune out due the poor officiating, it’s likely they’ll be in the minority. I know a number of people that have already stated their intentions to do just that…just not when their own team is on. But I don’t buy it.

Not only will most current NFL fans not watch less, it’s reasonable to believe that they’ll in fact watch more. And others, who otherwise wouldn’t watch as much football, will be tuning in more often, too. Why? Because the American viewing public loves a good train wreck -especially on television.

Some Analysts are already calling the final play on Monday Night’s game “The most famous catch in the history of the NFL”. Even above some of the more noteworthy Superbowl catches, like “the catch” or even the “immaculate reception”. Though, I wouldn’t go that far just yet.

Still, you can’t ignore fact that the ratings for ESPN’s Sportscenter after the game hit a record for viewers in it’s second highest rating in the history of the show. The buzz surrounding this issue isn’t to be understated. And it has generated interest…lots of it.  We’re not the only ones to notice.

Perhaps it’s just human nature that people will be salivating for more drama. Though when it happens, NFL fans will be furious yet hard pressed to change the channel. It all plays right into the hands of the league, who seems insistent on getting what it wants despite what critics will say.

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