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Steve Young is a smart guy. Majored in business finance at BYU and returned for his law degree. Also knows a thing or two about the NFL. On SportsCenter, in the wake of Monday night's very public pillorying of the replacement refs, Young gave America some real talk.
Everything about the NFL now is inelastic for demand. There's nothing they can do to hurt the demand for the game. So the bottom line is they don't care. Player safety—doesn't matter in this case. Bring in the Division III officials–-doesn't matter. Because in the end, you're still going to watch the game, we're going to all complain and moan and gripe and say there's all these problems, all the coaches say it, the players say it—doesn't matter. So just go ahead, gripe all you want. I'm going to rest. Let them eat cake.
There's nothing that changes the demand for the NFL. ... It doesn't affect the desire for the game. If it affected the desire for the game, they'd come up with a few million dollars.
He's right. Fuck me, he's right. The NFL is a business, and its primary goal is to maximize profit while minimizing cost. Once upon a time the product itself might have mattered, but as Scocca has pointed out, those days are long gone. The NFL knew, when it resolved to play hardball with the referees over less than 1 percent of league revenue, that it could survive and continue to thrive even with an inferior product. That was the central lesson of the 1987 player strike, when people came out to watch scab players.
And here we are, the officials locked out and everyone talking about the inferior quality of the replacements—and ratings aren't down. Attendance isn't down. Merchandise sales aren't down. The NFL, the most popular sport in America, has been validated: No one's not watching football because the refs are terrible.
Elasticity, the term Steve Young invokes, isn't strictly in play here. That refers to how price affects (or doesn't affect) demand, and the cost of consuming the NFL hasn't changed. But the same factors that make a commodity inelastic do apply. The NFL has no competition. If viewers are less satisfied with the product, they still prefer it to baseball or Canadian football or a Sunday with the family. The NFL might be too big to fail.
How inferior would the product have to be before fans tuned out? Maybe this time around, the replacement players would have been enough. Maybe. But the refs are a different matter. There have been no talks with their union since the season began, and no talks are scheduled. Really, why the hell would the NFL ever let the refs keep their pensions? In a very real sense, the league has nothing to lose.
It's crappy to know that you and I and all the NFL fans out there provide the NFL's leverage against its workers. But what are we supposed to do—not watch football? I've long ago made the moral compromises required to watch the sport, even knowing what it does to players' brains. Being a silent accomplice to Roger Goodell's union-busting barely even registers. So maybe the excoriations of the league's credibility from even its media partners could become unacceptably bad PR. And maybe the Vegas sports books could grow wary of setting lines on shakily officiated games. Are ESPN and Vegas going to pull out of the multibillion-dollar football-industrial complex? Not a chance. There's too much profit to go around. The only way the referees win this lockout is if you stop watching the NFL—and if you can convince a few million viewers to quit with you. The league isn't holding its breath.