George Zornick argues that boycotting the NFL over the locked-out officials and low-quality scabs won’t hurt the league because their revenue is already baked into the cake thanks to pre-paid season tickets and TV contracts.
I don’t think that’s right. Or, rather, I don’t think that it’s relevant. Before the season started, there were two issues the owners had to consider about initiating a lockout. One was: Can replacement refs do as good a job? The answer is no. Another was: Will the fans care if we deliver a lower-quality product? Recall that in the business world, delivering maximum quality is often the wrong strategy. Ikea knows perfectly well that it’s not making the world’s greatest chairs and McDonalds knows that it’s not making the world’s greatest burgers. The business proposition is to deliver adequate levels of value and convenience such that customers like the product anyway. So the question on the table is: Does the NFL need to pay the price to get the best football officials in the world, or is it acceptable to get by with third-rate replacements?
The viewership numbers are key to answering this question. It’s true that if ratings decline that won’t immediately hurt owners’ revenue. But the owners understand that their ability to make money depends on people watching the games. People whine about things all the time. But if people stop watching, that’s got to send off alarm bells.