Pro Sports Leagues Losing Lustre

Pro sports leagues are shooting themselves in the foot … er, feet … and their reputations will suffer as a result.

Last night I watched two Keystone Kops (aka NFL Replacement Refs) signal two separate interpretations of the final play of a game, with the final outcome being the wrong call winning out and the wrong team winning the game.

2012-09-25 - KeystoneRefs

Not wrong because I’m a fan of one team or the other (I root for the Miami Dolphins, which is a whole different kind of wrong right now) but because it had chipped another chunk of credibility away from the one professional sports league that still had some.

Professional sports is in a reputation crisis. Team owners, represented by league officers, quibble with players and officials over pocket change. For instance, the NFL is arguing with its refs over salaries that lag behind other league officials as well as retirement benefits. The owners may be right in contending that NFL officials shouldn’t earn as much as an NHL ref or MLB ump because they officiate just 16-20 contests a year.

Bringing in DIII refs to coach in the NFL, however, is ludicrous.  By the way, who would blame DI or DII football refs for sticking with their current gigs rather than jeopardize their current income for possibly just one or two games at the highest level.

As my friend Elizabeth used to say, the NFL is tripping over dollars as they stoop to pick up the pennies. Their reputation, after all, has a dollar figure attached to it, and it’s quickly becoming tarnished.

The NFL’s brand is about a quality experience for the fans, including the best coaches, the best players, the best stadiums, and all the team paraphernalia a heart could desire. It is not about two zebras disagreeing on a call, a replay ref unable to overturn a wrong call and every person watching the game knowing that the wrong team won but unable to reverse the results.

The NHL, meanwhile, is in its fourth player lockout in 20 years, demonstrating that some people never learn. Each of the previous lockouts resulted in reduced fan interest (which equals lost revenues for team owners and players). Perhaps the NHL and NHLPA will pull this one out of the fire before too much damage is done, but it sounds like many are ready to dig in for the long haul (with many players already signed to play for European teams this year).

Major League Baseball has been rocked by doping, bad umpire calls and inflated egos for years.  The sport lost me years ago when it failed to deliver a consistent level of parity across the league (something the NHL and NFL actually did achieve), allowing small-market teams to continue struggling for the Yankees’ leftovers.

The NBA, meanwhile, is a collection of over-inflated egos and salary cap rules that allow certain big-city markets to form and re-form all-star teams in big city markets while the hinterlands can only hope they can naturally grow their talent into a contender once every generation.

Individual athletes — think Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong or Lebron James — have had their own reputation crises the past few years. We expect individuals to be flawed and make the kinds of mistakes these guys did (hurting their own careers, legacies and marketability). One would hope that the collective wisdom of many smart people, including many high-priced consultants of every ilk, would come up with better solutions than the ones we have seen so far from professional sports leagues in North America.