The NFL, the most profitable sports league in the history of our country and one of the few recession-proof businesses of any kind in this economy, has stained the start of its season fighting its referees over an estimated $4 million. The whole thing is like watching Bill Gates make a scene in a furniture store, knocking stuff over and punching the sales person because nobody will honor his coupon for a couch.
Why make this particular mess? How can this be worth it to the NFL given all the angry noise that has engulfed the season’s first month and given how much the league cares about the image of its brand? Four million dollars? Really? That’s a fifth of what commissioner Roger Goodell makes annually.
Some perspective: That $4 million is about what it cost last year for one 30-second commercial during the Super Bowl. The Super Bowl commercial inventory, in a sluggish economy, sold out before Thanksgiving. That means there is an actual waiting list of sponsors lined up for months to pay that $4million for 30 seconds of football’s time. And this very noisy fight with the referees, which has consumed too much of the first month’s conversation in a league that punishes its most famous employees with unprecedented penalties if they dare stain the shield, is over a mere 1/2,250 of the NFL’s annual $9 billion revenue.
A different perspective: Back when he owned the Dolphins, Wayne Huizenga, one of the wealthiest men in the world, was once asked the lowest denomination of money he would stop to bend down to pick up if he saw it on the street. A penny, he said.
These owners didn’t get to be owners by ignoring the pennies. Winning fights over money is who they are, and how they got where they are. Negotiating is, in fact, a fun and competitive game as they lord over all those colliding employees who have to give their limbs and health to the other kind being played. Asking the owners to cave on this is like asking Ray Lewis to take a knee and allow himself to be trampled when that football is snapped.
These guys aren’t called sportsmen; they’re called businessmen. They, in job title, own the sportsmen. They aren’t going to become different people around this hobby than they are in the businesses that allow them to afford this hobby, and they aren’t going to genuflect before the refs or the customers, no matter how noisy this gets. A botched call that decides a game will sway them soon? Maybe, if one of those is indeed coming. Or maybe they’ll just point out that the real refs botched games, too, as well as an overtime coin flip.
Greed? That’s the pejorative an angry fan might spew. But the owners would counter that it is just business. “Greed” and “business” are separated only by which side of the transaction you reside. The local grocery store doesn’t endure the expense of providing you free air conditioning as altruism for its beloved customer. It provides free air conditioning because, if it doesn’t, the beloved customer might instead spend at the grocery store that does. The thing that is beloved here is the dollars, not the customers, and the only leverage the customer has is withholding them. But we don’t. Football has never been more popular.
Up in their skyboxes, NFL owners have turned off your air conditioning down below. Where are you going to go? Here’s what you are going to do: Complain and sweat. Here’s what you aren’t going to do: Leave. And that’s why the refs have no real leverage. All they can do is hope that the replacement refs keep getting worse as the owners bank on them getting better.