NFL replacement referees were a hit — on TV

As the NFL drowned in angry noise the first month of the season, customers wailing about the incompetence of the substitute-teacher referees while the media howled about “integrity” and “credibility” and other things that didn’t matter, a little something got lost, as it always does when we find a way to soak our entertainment in morality.

This was really good for business.

How blessed a place does the NFL occupy in the marketplace when it can endure weeks of bitching and messiness and actually end up in a better place at the end of the unholy transaction? It is like watching BP spilling oil in the Gulf of Mexico and, instead of needing to sell $10 billion in assets to cover settlements and clean-up while its CEO is displaced, somehow figuring out a way to profit off a very public incompetence.

Scandal can be crippling in sports, as Penn State can tell you. But here’s when you want it: When it doesn’t lose you customers or money or anything real in terms of reputation, and the scandal can be fixed quickly in a way that leaves your product as beloved as ever. Look at this ref mess with the clarity of retrospect. The angry noise is as gone as those fake referees now, so all we really had those first few weeks was A) a pro-wrestling story line that made our weekly consumption crazier and more dramatic, B) a new appreciation for referees we never before considered appreciating, and C) the best television ratings the sport has ever seen.

Football was No. 1 in every TV market with a team the first three weeks of the season. That has never happened before, ever, in America’s most popular sport. Even though it was after midnight, ESPN’s SportsCenter after the Green Bay-Seattle fiasco was the highest rated in 17 years. That makes all our outrage feel kind of counterfeit, truth be told, given that we would have watched the games even if rodeo clowns were doing the officiating (they kind of were, when you think about it). Whether you were laughing or angry, this was entertaining.

Consider this: If the Packers had actually done what they discussed, kneeling on plays this Sunday as a form of protest, you know what would have happened to all that faux outrage directed at the NFL and the refs? It would have shifted. It would have fallen with the weight of a million anvils on the Packers themselves … for actually doing something on behalf of our outrage ... but denying us our weekly heroin fix in doing so. That’s right. The Packers would actually be doing something meaningful with their outrage, and we would have killed them for it because they would have been staining our beloved Sundays with their damn stupid principles.

All that loud player outrage? That was total nonsense, too. First of all, the game was no less safe with the replacement refs. Violent, unsafe hits are going to happen in a split second regardless of who is officiating. The real refs are better at calling penalties on those plays, but they are no better at preventing them.

Secondly, the replacement refs merely allowed the players to unleash publicly all those resentments they have built up against commissioner Roger Goodell. But it wasn’t really about the officiating. It was about a cheap opportunity to crush the sport’s unpopular czar for all his overzealous punishments in the past. Goodell was but a puppet piñata in this ref fight, carrying out the wishes of his union-busting owners, but did you hear one player go after an owner — the real instigators of this mess? The owners were hiding behind Goodell, making him the face of this, but not a single player dared challenge the guy signing his checks.

Here’s the bottom line on the bottom line: CBS pays $3.73 billion for football’s TV rights, NBC $3.6 billion, Fox $4.27 billion, ESPN $8.8 billion. This doesn’t even count the piddly $1 billion DirecTV pays to simply re-air the games CBS and Fox are re-airing, a double dip that has no precedent in televised entertainment or even in business. That’s $21.4 billion just in TV rights. And you know what? It expires in 2014. The next contract, which runs until 2022, will be almost double that — $39.6 billion. This is a marriage that football and its TV partners find blissful and profitable, never more so than with the unprecedented ratings the first three weeks of this season.

Baseball can tell you about the benefits of scandal. Baseball, believe it or not, is grateful for steroids. Steroids were medicine for this sport. Baseball is healthier than it has ever been today, getting off of its knees the way it did when bloated Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire inflated the sport back up to size after a strike that produced real customer outrage that pushed fans and dollars away. For all the smearing and Congressional hearings, the fact is that Bud Selig, given a chance to do it over, probably would not trade all the healing steroids did for his sport in exchange for having a clean sport without all those sport-resurrecting home runs. Those credibility and trust issues steroids caused were much more serious than anything these fake refs did, but even those don’t echo in any meaningful way that costs baseball dollars.

The damage done by those replacement refs? It isn’t real unless you live in Green Bay. For all the wailing about image and trust, the NFL did exactly zero real harm to itself during the first month. The sport is stronger than ever today. Long-term, yes, it would have been an issue because you can’t have your sport feeling as corrupt as boxing. But short-term? No problem. Quite the opposite, actually. Football might regret those replacement refs in some abstract way, but you know it wouldn’t give back those good-for-business ratings.

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