Bad Refs Won't End the NFL Lockout—but You Can, if You Stop Watching

Last night on Monday Night Football, the Seattle Seahawks rookie quarterback Russell Wilson threw an interception in the endzone to lose the game to the Green Bay Packers. Then he gloriously threw up his hands, celebrated with ecstatic teammates, and watched his kicker put the extra point through the uprights, sealing a Seahawks victory.

Wait, what?

Yes, exactly. With the league's officials locked out due to a labor dispute with the NFL, the replacement referees called the interception a touchdown. Basically, the defender caught the pass, but the wide receiver put his hands around the ball to make it look like a shared catch, and under the tie-goes-to-the-runner principle, the refs called it a touchdown -- even after a video review. The TV announcers were apoplectic. Several appeared on the verge of tears. The Packers looked vaguely murderous. Even the prudish ESPN ran the indignant headline "Replacement refs decide game."

So, out with the scabs? Not so fast. The broad assumption is that this fateful play will hasten the end of the lockout. Maybe it should, and maybe it will. But from a business standpoint, the NFL doesn't have much more reason to budge than it did 48 hours ago. TV ratings are at record-highs. Sunday night's ratings were up 8% over a year ago. Viewers are furious, but they're also viewers, and the fans' indignation is more fleeting and harder to measure than ratings or ad dollars and TV licensing agreements.

"The NFL has essentially identified its product as being inelastic," said Eben Jose, a sports business analyst at IBISWorld. "They have no reason to really push a deal with the refs because TV ratings are better than ever."

Of course, the NFL has a keen interest in protecting its brand before it suffers a backlash (they already fired last night's referees). But the league is also making a business calculation: If NFL fans keep watching replacement-ref games, how much do they really value the more expensive referees? Why should we pay more money for the same financial returns?

I don't know any football fan who thinks the current NFL "product" is superior to last year. But collectively, we're consuming more of it. If you want the real refs back, the best thing you can do isn't to root for more errors. It's simply not to root at all. The loudest and clearest way to ask for a change is simply to change the channel.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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