Group Created with Sketch.
Volume 21 No. 2
  • Created with Sketch.
  • Created with Sketch.
  • Created with Sketch.

Shield damage

Refs, bounties have yet to hit NFL's business, but image of gold-standard league, commish have been tarnished

In the mid-1980s, when lawsuits from Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis against the NFL dominated league headlines, then-NFL executive Jim Steeg remembers being worried that football’s popularity could suffer as a result. Longtime league operations guru Bill Granholm counseled him, Steeg recounted last week: “As long as we line up 11 on offense and 11 on defense,” Granholm would say, “everything will be fine.”

Photo illustration by: WES SCHUENEMAN / STAFF. Photo credits: GETTY IMAGES (main, lower center); AP IMAGES (lower left)
Those remarks seem prophetic even today.

Despite the public outcry over replacement referees, open calls for Commissioner Roger Goodell’s resignation and predictions of a tarnished NFL brand, none of those issues hurt the league’s economics ahead of the regular officials reaching a deal to return to the field late last week.

“Even the best referees blow calls,” said Tom Spock, a former NFL executive vice president who led negotiations with the referees union in the 1990s. “How are TV ratings? How is attendance?”

As Spock well knows, the league’s popularity by almost any measure — TV ratings, Internet traffic, fantasy football participation or social media mentions — remains strong. In fact, by some measures, the controversy of the replacement referees served to stoke interest in the game: An East Coast midnight showing of “SportsCenter” after the disputed touchdown in last week’s now-infamous “Monday Night Football” game drew a 5.2 rating and the most viewers ever for the show. And the disputed game quickly seeped through the mainstream media. Even the president chimed in.

But is all news good news?

“It’s like negative branding: The more we see it happening, it reflects poorly on the league itself,” said Mike Paul, a crisis PR expert. “This is about branding, and the more we have a negative brand, meaning that people are thinking negatively about the sport and the game, that is bad for everybody.”

But even Paul, president of MGP & Associates, said it likely would have taken a full season of replacement referees, and no early deal in the subsequent offseason, to get sponsors and advertisers questioning investing with the league for 2013.

Big names torched the league on Twitter, especially after the Packers-Seahawks game.

Still, conversations with industry executives across business lines last week revealed league partners and longtime supporters shocked to see the NFL, the gold standard in sports, mired in such an ugly issue. Many were asking the same questions tumbling around sports talk radio and across Twitter and Facebook: How could the referee situation have been allowed to go so far, and did the league cave a bit in its negotiations with the referees union, showing some rare vulnerability after the tumult that followed the questionable touchdown in the Monday night game?

Sources close to the negotiations said the Tuesday and Wednesday talks that broke the logjam had already been scheduled before the disputed touchdown call was made, but even Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank told NFL Network last week that the call provided some impetus.

Few expect long-term effect to the NFL image, as the league moved quickly to get the regular refs back on the field. But there could be at least one casualty beside the Green Bay Packers. The reputation of Goodell, who had a long public honeymoon period early in his tenure when he described his role as being the commissioner of football, not just the leader of the owners, could pay a price.

“I don’t think anyone thinks of the commissioner as the custodian of the game,” said one former player who requested anonymity because he now does business in sports. Suggesting further that Goodell failed to stand up to those who hired him to prevent the spectacle that was the replacement refs, the former player added, “This has been the owners’ hunt.”

Few industry veterans are willing to publicly criticize, or even question, Goodell. For all the negative headlines he has endured in recent weeks and months, Goodell presides over the unquestioned powerhouse league of U.S. sports. But there’s no doubt that Goodell’s standing among NFL fans clearly took a hit last week, continuing a rough patch for the commissioner now in his seventh season at the helm.

One former league executive said the ongoing bounty scandal involving the New Orleans Saints, in which the league’s professed evidence seems to have emerged perhaps not as iron clad as initially claimed, combined now with the referee controversy, has damaged Goodell. “He wants to be the commissioner of the NFL,” this executive said. “He is the commissioner of the owners.”

In remarks to reporters last week, Goodell confirmed that extracting pension concessions out of the referees was a big demand by the owners and that, in the short term, the league had taken an image hit. “Obviously, this has gotten a lot of attention,” he said of the matter with the referees. “It has not been positive, and it is something you have to fight through and get to the long term — and that is something we have been able to do with an eight-year agreement.”

When Pete Rozelle ran the NFL, Rozelle would not engage in labor talks with the players because he wanted to elevate himself above the internecine struggle, though he would get involved as mediator. That changed under Paul Tagliabue, but Tagliabue’s tight relationship with late union executive director Gene Upshaw mitigated public perceptions that the commissioner only performed the owners’ bidding. With Goodell having been seen in some quarters as placing the integrity of the game at risk while waging a battle for the owners with referees, it could mark another transition in how the league’s commissioner is viewed.

Goodell frequently was the face of the league last year during the bitter lockout of the players, often being the one to take the hits instead of the owners. At the 2011 draft, which fell on a night the league was in court trying to reverse a judge’s order that lifted the lockout, fans loudly booed Goodell’s appearance on stage, leading him to respond that he, too, wanted to see football.

While some of that enmity dissipated when the 2011 season was saved, the league’s constant friction with the NFL Players Association along with the bounty and referee stories appear to have cost Goodell some of that good will. Players now are routinely critical of him on Twitter and through other media, once unheard-of shows of disrespect for the league and its leader. Goodell’s predecessors, of course, never had to deal with the elements of today’s social media age, underscoring that any figure likely would have trouble staying above the fray and enjoying an impartial reputation. Still, there is no telling how quickly Goodell will be able to regain that lost good will given his intense, personal effort in solving the referee crisis.

There is no question that Goodell continues to have strong support among both owners and other industry insiders, and those who know him continue to defend him, contending he will always do what he feels is in the best interests of the sport. John Tatum, who runs sports marketing firm Genesco Sports Enterprises, said the concepts of “commissioner of the owners” and “commissioner of football” are essentially interchangeable titles.

“You can’t really separate the two,” Tatum said, stating that what’s in the best interests of the owners is most commonly also in the best interests of football. “Roger has shown if he has got to do something for the greater good of the sport, he will.”