The NFL's Night of Horror: 'I Don't Think This Changes Anything,' Says Sports Economist

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A terrible mistake by replacement referees at the end of last night's football game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers inflamed the online community of NFL fans, who are demanding that the league end the referee lockout and bring back the professionals.

But David Berri, a sports economist with Southern Utah University and the author of The Wages of Wins, has a different take. Here is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Set the scene. What's this whole NFL referee lockout about?

The refs are looking for more money and security, and the NFL is saying: 'We don't think you're that important. We don't think you're irreplaceable.'

Last night's game sure made them look irreplaceable.

Well, I'm a Detroit Lions fan. I thought last night's call was just great.

I'm sure Minnesota Vikings fans agree. But in all seriousness...

In all seriousness, if I'm the NFL, I'm thinking: 'Well, clearly these guys ain't so good. But maybe over time they'll get better.' If they do get better, and people get used to them, maybe it will prove that these NFL refs are pretty easy to replace [and] for cheaper.

Football's TV ratings are up so far this year. How important is that statistic?

That [statistic] I think justifies the NFL's position. It suggests the fans aren't going to stop watching. They might get angry. But the issue is that fans get angry all the time. Are you still willing to watch or buy the ticket? From the NFL's perspective, the people who are getting upset are saying, 'We want you to spend more money even though we'll watch anyway.'

Even if fans stop watching the NFL on TV, how much would it matter in the short term? The NFL has already signed its rights for the next few years. If ratings fall next week, it's the networks that get screwed, not the league.

That is very very true, unless there's a clause in the TV contracts about ratings. But I find it hard to see there would be an effect on the ratings. The refs are going to get some stuff kinda goofy. These people are going to make mistakes and you're going to get mad at them.

Let's leave the ratings argument aside. What about the idea that replacement refs calling a lax game are more likely to lead to player injuries that cost victories. That really would be hitting the owners in their pocketbooks.

Bad refs leading to player injuries is different. If you're going to harm the product on the field, that's a problem for the owners [if they buy it].

Did last night's game make a deal favorable to the locked-out refs more likely?

I just don't think it changes anything. If the owners won't make more money [paying professional refs more money], why pay them more money? If they're really unique and without them players will get hurt, then you need them. Otherwise, why make a deal?

It's interesting that you keep saying "the owners" because so much of the anger has been directed toward NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. ESPN's takedown today blames Goodell in the headline and mentions him 10 more times in the article -- compared with only two mentions of the owners.

I can't imagine that Goodell is acting on his own. He represents the owners. If the owners clamor to bring the refs back, the refs come back. He's not overruling the owners. He represents the owners. He may be the spokesperson for the owners, but the commissioner is not making decisions on his own. People get confused about the title of commissioner. He represents the owners. 

What about the economics of the NFL can make us smarter about this?

The NFL is a phenomenally profitable enterprise because it's the most popular sport in the U.S., and this is not going to affect the popularity of the sport. People are still going to like the NFL. You have to take a step back and ask why do people watch, and it's not the refs. You were never ever happy with the referees.As a Lions fan, I'm frankly thrilled that the Packers are 1-2.

What is the media missing?

The media can get as mad as they want, but the owners see that getting mad is what the media does.

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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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