Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 20, 2012

Fans Stay Loyal Despite Lockouts, So Owners Are In No Hurry

The glaring and painful commonality shared by the NFL’s lockout of its officials and the NHL’s lockout of its players is that both disputes appear nowhere near a resolution. No formal talks are being held between either league and its respective union, and generally speaking it’s really hard to negotiate a settlement without any actual negotiations.

Through two weeks of the NFL’s new season, the chorus of complaints about the officiating from players, coaches, and the media, is growing louder. At first the problems were more the stuff of farce, like the referee who announced a penalty during a preseason game while facing away from the television camera. But as the games have begun to count the errors have become more substantive. Extra timeouts have been awarded, obvious forward passes have been initially ruled fumbles, and clear penalties have not been flagged. Meanwhile the amount of down time in games has increased as the fill-in zebras conduct interminable reviews and engage in lengthy on-field discussions amongst themselves.

The pace of the pro game is itself the most serious problem for the substitutes, most of whose experience tops out at the lower levels of college play. Commentators have repeatedly pointed out situations in which it is apparent that these officials, while surely doing their best, simply can’t keep up with the speed and intensity of the NFL. Games have become increasingly chippy, with moments that look less like football and more like a street fight in the making. Those issues raise serious concerns about player safety for a league which has belatedly begun to address concerns about the long-term health on young men playing an intentionally brutal sport.

The NFL’s on-going use of substitute officials also, and inevitably, raises doubts about the integrity of the game. The league had to remove Brian Stropolo, a replacement side judge scheduled to work last weekend’s game between New Orleans and Carolina after it discovered that his Facebook page featured pictures of himself in Saints gear. Eagles’ running back LeSean McCoy told a Philadelphia radio program that one official had told him “I need you for my fantasy team.” USA Today reported that while visiting teams were flagged for penalties 7% more often than home squads from 2000 through 2011, that gap has grown to 23% in the first two weeks of the 2012 season. To be sure it’s a small sample, but it’s not hard to imagine an official who’s used to working a junior college game being at least subconsciously intimidated by 80,000 screaming home fans at a packed NFL arena. Las Vegas has taken notice, with the legal bookmakers there now taking bets on how many penalties will be called on each team and the gap between the two.

Despite the criticism the league has been steadfast in its support for the substitutes amid reports that it already has in place a plan to stick with them for at least the first four or five weeks of the season. On Monday a league statement that might have come from an alternate universe read “The current officials have made great strides and are performing admirably under unprecedented scrutiny and great pressure.”

While there is no movement in the NFL lockout, the signs of movement in the NHL are those of the growing number of players heading overseas. Hockey’s lockout of its players wasn’t twelve hours old when four-time All-Star and reigning MVP Evgeni Malkin announced he had signed with Mettalurg in the Russian-based KHL, where he will be joined by Ottawa defenseman Sergei Gonchar. Two-time MVP Alex Ovechkin is returning to Dynamo Moscow, and has gone so far as to hint that he might not return to the NHL. Dozens and dozens of other NHL players are in the process of signing with teams in the various Russian and European leagues. Ultimately the total number may only be limited by the fact that the players association has told its members that they must purchase insurance against the value of their NHL contracts. If they fail to do so and are injured in Europe, their NHL team would be free to void their agreement.

But whatever the final number of players who skate off to Europe or Russia, the fact that many are doing so and going quickly, coupled with the fact that players have been vocal about the excellent communication they have from Donald Fehr and other union executives, are sure signs that the union has no expectations of a quick settlement. Meanwhile preseason contests have been cancelled through the end of September, NHL staffers are preparing to take a 20% pay cut, and of course no negotiating sessions between the owners and the players are scheduled.

I have written before in this space of my belief that the last NHL lockout, when owners were willing to sacrifice an entire season in order to have their demands met, fundamentally shifted the labor relations landscape in all North American team sports. The other leagues saw the solidarity which the NHL owners displayed, and the victory which that brought them. Within the past year the NFL and NBA owners used similar tactics and won their own victories in less time. There is no reason to think that a different pattern will emerge in the two current lockouts. Indeed, from a strictly financial point of view, the $9 billion NFL’s disagreement with its unionized officials is laughingly tiny. But if one has the power, why not use it?

That is especially true because of something else that the owners of major sports franchises saw seven years ago when the NHL sacrificed a season. Of course there were complaints and bitter fans, and after it was all over some who swore they would never watch another game. Perhaps, in some locales across the land, there were even those who kept that promise. But the reality is that while the NHL like every major sport has its problem franchise, as a whole the league experienced significant growth and enormous fan support from the time it returned right through the L.A. Kings remarkable run to the Stanley Cup last spring. In short, the owners in the various leagues can do what they’re doing because they know that in the end we fans will still be there.

Former 49ers quarterback Steve Young said it best last weekend on ESPN, following Atlanta’s victory over Denver. “Everything about the NFL now is inelastic for demand. There’s nothing that they can do to hurt the demand for the game. So, the bottom line is they don’t care.” Young continued, “Player safety doesn’t matter in this case. Bring Division III officials? Doesn’t matter. Because in the end you’re still going to watch the game. We’re going to all complain and moan and gripe and say it has all these problems. And all the coaches will say it. All the players will say it. But it doesn’t matter.”

Young’s rant is especially applicable to the dispute between the lords of the NFL and a group of part-time officials. No fan is going to refuse to turn on their TV set at 1:00 on a Sunday afternoon to watch the most popular sport in North America because he or she knows that the officiating is going to be amateurish. But as the NHL showed after its lost season, even the lesser sports can rely on loyal fan bases to continue to buy tickets and tune into broadcasts. Of course we’ll complain. But as long as we’re watching while we’re complaining, the owners will continue to hold all the cards.


  1. Mike’s observations are spot on. Why aren’t the players supporting the striking officials?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: