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Will NFL's Battle With Referees Damage Effort to Woo Fans?

After three tumultuous weeks, the National Football League’s long national nightmare is over. Now, the question remains if the sports world’s most lucrative organization can recover its bearings with a fan base that remains riled up over the refereeing fiasco.

Wide receiver Golden Tate #81 of the Seattle Seahawks makes a catch in the end zone to defeat the Green Bay Packers on a controversial call by the officials at CenturyLink Field on September 24, 2012 in Seattle, Washington.
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Wide receiver Golden Tate #81 of the Seattle Seahawks makes a catch in the end zone to defeat the Green Bay Packers on a controversial call by the officials at CenturyLink Field on September 24, 2012 in Seattle, Washington.

If anything, the botched call seen and heard around the world on a Monday Night Football game between the Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks did have one positive element. It helped to hasten an agreement between the NFL and the union representing its referees. After a stalemate over a long-term contract, officials finally returned to the game Thursday.

”We want to be sure our sports entertainment product is the best sports entertainment product in the world, and it requires us to have high-quality referees,” Robert Kraft, CEO of The Kraft Group and New England Patriots owner told CNBC’s Larry Kudlow.

(Read more: NFL Owner Reveals Big Sticking Point in Ref Impasse.)

Yet the turmoil comes at a sensitive time. As reflected in Kraft’s remarks, the NFL is in the middle of a highly publicized campaign to coax financially-strapped fans into spending money on football tickets. Stadium attendance and other lucrative avenues are crucial to helping the league maintain its fortunes in a down economy.

(Read more: What the NFL Season Is Saying About the US Economy.)

“Everybody says the NFL’s got so much money,” said former NFL quarterback and TV personality Frank Tarkenton, to CNBC’s Larry Kudlow. Their ability to earn money even during a sluggish economy is “because they make good business decisions and they don't want to make a sloppy business decisions like our government’s done” in Washington, he added.

Independent observers and the NFL’s own players agree that three weeks of controversial calls damaged the league’s brand, yet it remains to be seen whether the damage will be lasting. Some say the bitter aftertaste of the referee controversies could linger in fans’ mouth, which may hurt the NFL’s multi-billion dollar, revenue generating machine.

"I just feel bad for the fans," Aaron Rodgers, the Packers’ super-bowl winning quarterback, said to Milwaukee’s ESPN radio. “They pay good money and the game is being tarnished by an NFL who obviously cares more about saving a little money then having the integrity of the game [diminished] a little bit."

Beneath the avalanche of negative press and sarcastic jokes that became fodder for late night talk show hosts, the NFL and its line officials were grappling with an issue of basic dollars and cents that has become fundamental to the health of many companies and governments.

In the final agreement, the league punted on the issue by keeping the current benefit plan in place through the 2016 season, or until officials earn 20 years of service. The defined benefit plan will then be frozen.

The struggle for agreement between the league and the referees was a microcosm of the battle over retirement benefits taking place across the country.

Many economists see long-term pension benefits as a ticking time bomb on the balance sheets of corporations, states and localities. Several years ago, crushing pension costs – a scenario the NFL hoped to avoid – figured prominently in a standoff between unions and Detroit’s big three automakers Chrysler, Ford and General Motors.

The referees “put a gun to the head of the NFL, they they shouldn't be doing that,” said Tarkenton. “They want to keep a defined plan [and] corporations cannot do that anymore. The only people that can do that are the public unions, and they’re breaking the country.”

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