Ad Age: Why Possible Deal Between NFL, Referees is Good News For Madison Avenue; Outraged Fans Not Good for Brand Association

The NFL and its locked-out NFL Referees Association have made enough progress at the negotiating table that there’s a chance the zebras could be back on the field for Week 4 games, according to ESPN. And it wouldn’t be a second too soon.

The league’s overmatched replacement refs have turned off fans and TV viewers with their frequent mistakes and delays — which wasn’t good business for the marketers who sponsor the league.

“As a fan and as a marketer, I am very pleased to hear the news of the pending deal. Although casual fans may have paid more attention because of all the conversation and consternation due to the replacement referees, in the long run it was not a positive circumstance for the NFL or its advertisers,” said Tony Pace, chief marketing officer of Subway. “As a brand who is a supporter of the NFL, we want to see the best on-field experience possible and for the league to have continued success.”

The final straw may have been Monday night’s nationally televised fiasco, when many sports TV analysts and viewers thought replacement refs jobbed the Green Bay Packers in their disputed 14-12 loss to the Seattle Seahawks.

The sight of inexperienced replacements huddling endlessly has become all too familiar to frustrated TV viewers this season. The sluggish pace has produced longer games.

The average length of games through Week 3 of the 2012 NFL season was 3:14:22 — nearly 9 minutes longer than the average of 3:05:48 through Week 3 of the 2011 season. That average doesn’t include Monday night’s debacle, which took 3:16.

With two of last week’s games the most-watched shows of the week, ratings haven’t suffered — yet. And while longer games may seem like good news for marketers, the NFL says advertisers are not getting more spots in this season’s longer telecasts. There are 20 commercial breaks (with 90 seconds of commercial time) in a 60-minute game. The extra eight or nine minutes of air times added this season has been “commercial-free,” said Dan Masonson, a spokesman for the NFL.

“There have been no changes to Sunday Night Football advertising this season,” said Chris McCloskey, a spokesman for NBC. NBC Sports’ Sunday Night Football was the highest-rated TV series in prime time last year. With the number of ad units fixed by the NFL, the longer games have not translated into more spots for advertisers.

Kevin Sullivan, former White House communications director, predicts the controversy will go away as quickly as it came.

“Right now players, coaches and fans are unhappy, but the NFL will fix this,” said the founder of Kevin Sullivan Communications. “And 15 minutes after they fix it, most people will forget about it. The NFL brand is virtually invulnerable.”

But other experts note the tone has been different this week. The league’s star players have been hammering their employer, their comments dripping with contempt. Reigning NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers, of the Green Bay Packers, said he had to apologize to fans — because the league itself wouldn’t do it.

“I just feel bad for the fans,” said Mr. Rodgers Tuesday on his weekly radio show. “They pay good money and the game is being tarnished by an NFL [that] obviously cares more about saving a little money than having the integrity of the game diminish a little bit.”

Crisis PR expert Mike Paul said the NFL only made matters worse by issuing a carefully worded statement on Tuesday supporting the refs’ call that Seattle Quarterback Russell Wilson’s last-second Hail Mary pass was a game-winning touchdown catch by Golden Tate of the Seahawks, not a game-ending interception by M.D. Jennings of the Packers. That statement just insulted the intelligence of fans who’ve watched the replays over. But the NFL had to do it to support its embattled replacements.

“That’s what you call covering your butt,” Mr. Paul said.

There’s been a lot of talk about Monday’s game being the “tipping point.” But the league’s billionaire owners wouldn’t be seeking a deal, Mr. Paul said, unless they were worried about fans not buying tickets or advertisers rethinking their ad commitments.

“In a nutshell, there is no true tipping point — until it affects business.”