When your sports league has lost Rob Lowe, you're in trouble. When your sports league loses ESPN, you're really in trouble.
That's what happened Monday night to the NFL. The sports TV giant, a Disney-owned channel that will cheer loudly and despite any fan criticism for anything even resembling a sport — like spelling bees — turned on the NFL Monday after a debacle of a game that was more or less an inevitability. With the NFL using replacement referees during labor disputes with its regular officials drag on, the game that everyone eventually expected happened between the Green Bay Packers and the Seattle Seahawks.
The next 48 hours could very well come to be taught as a case study in crisis management at every MBA school in the nation. A case study in brand power.
In a nutshell, Monday night's game ended with a last second throw to the end zone that appeared to be caught by both teams' players. The score was given to Seattle. Upon further video review, the call on the field was confirmed. Seattle won.
The NFL's failure here is two-fold. The first is the irony that, after years of complaints, the league recently relented and instituted a rule where all scoring plays would be reviewed on video and confirmed or reversed. By almost everyone's judgement, the Packers player caught the football and the play should have been reversed, leading to a Packers win.
The larger failure is on the part of the referees. The NFL has brought in are a veritable clown car of replacements, with one report confirming that some of the NFL's current referees came from the Lingerie Football League… where they had been fired for incompetence.
The core problem for the NFL is that the calls are now coming from inside the house. Losing ESPN is one thing, but now Hall of Famers and active players are in open revolt, despite knowing that they will be fined.
Following the game, Packers players tweeted their dissatisfaction. Lineman TJ Lang tweeted, "Fuck it NFL.. Fine me and use the money to pay the regular refs." Lineman Josh Sitton wrote, "That was bullshit. This is getting ridiculous! The NFL needs to get the refs back bfr we strike and they make no money!" Other Packers joined in the unrest. Superstar Clay Mathews III posted NFL head Roger Goodall's phone number to his Facebook page.
But those are biased players from the losing team; Troy Aikman, Hall of Fame quarterback and well respected announcer and all around NFL champion tweeted "These games are a joke."
Speaking of Facebook, the NFL's official page was brutal, a cavalcade of (sometimes NSFW) comments that should be read to be appreciated. A "Boycott the NFL" page had over 2,700 fans within hours. Meanwhile, others chose to twist attention to the game into a political statement about union labor.
Monday night's game was like throwing buckets of chum to the circling great white sharks that are the nation's sports media.
ESPN programs 24 hours a day on all 3,970 of its ESPN channels and you can bet 20 of those hours are going to be dedicated to showing the replay of the catch and slamming the NFL.
Worse for the NFL, with nearly every fan and every sports talking head and journalist lining up against the labor negotiations, who is going to defend the NFL? The entire conversation is likely to become one sided, and not in the NFL's favor.
Three or four years ago it was nearly unthinkable that the NFL could ever suffer a PR crisis great enough to undermine its popularity. But after the league was just starting to see the light at the other side of the storm over head injuries, this happens. That said, the biggest threat to the NFL is not this season but long term.
Some have stepped in to immediately declare the end of the NFL. "Video: Watch the NFL kill its brand in one easy (mis-)step" posted the page view-junkie Hotair.com. Other sentiments about the NFL brand were along these lines. Ridicules as Monday night's outcome was, it will only increase NFL viewership in the short term.
And that's why the NFL should be careful not to look at ratings in the immediate future as a referendum of any kind. Ratings may be up next week, but in the long term, this kind of popularity is far more erosive to NFL's brand than one night's epically-bad outcome could ever be.