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Wednesday, February 16, 2011
NFL picks a bad time for a PR disaster

On Tuesday the NFL made its third offer to fans who were displaced when their Super Bowl seats were not ready to go at kickoff. This offer, which basically will cover all verified expenses fans incurred to get to the game or give them a flat $5,000, is by far more generous.

But it probably arrives too late to win the public relations battle.

If the NFL is going to lock out the players, it needs to have some amount of public sentiment on its side, and it won't get that by looking like a group of arrogant owners who can't address the simplest of unfair situations.

Like a ticket that didn't come with a seat.

The average NFL fan may not be able to identify with wealthy professional athletes in Gucci sunglasses squawking about fair pay, but she can most certainly relate to a Packers fan who gets unceremoniously kicked out of a seat during a once-in-a-lifetime trip to see Aaron Rodgers make Green Bay proud.

First-person accounts of the trip detail long waits to get to the stadium, then being sent back outside once they found their tickets were worthless. Some fans were ultimately herded to a room in the basement of Cowboys Stadium to watch the game on TV.

Keep in mind that just a few floors above those displaced fans, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones enjoyed the game. At any time, either of them, or a representative of the stadium or the NFL, could have gone down and said a quick, "We're sorry," and maybe even picked up the bar tab. It would have gone a long way toward establishing some good will.

That didn't happen. The NFL made its first offer to reimburse a ticket holder three times the face value of a ticket, which wouldn't allow most fans to break even on the trip to a game they couldn't watch.

It didn't take long for a lawsuit to be filed.

A few days later Eric Grubman, NFL executive vice president of business ventures and chief financial officer, said on ProFootballTalk Live that he wished lawyers filing suit against the league for not fulfilling the contractual obligation to provide a seat would instead focus on "world peace."

Or maybe they should just eat cake.

It wasn't so long ago that the NFL Players Association was doing damage control after executive director DeMaurice Smith made his tone-deaf comment about the NFL and players being at war. The NFL wouldn't have had to do much to look like the voice of reason in the dispute to some fans.

But the penny-wise, pound-foolish approach to satisfying the wronged ticket holders makes the NFL look just plain stingy -- unlike the fiscally responsible adults they need to appear to be if they are going to lock out the players.

Your average fan shouldn't need an MBA or a law degree in order to follow the NFL.

Those fans don't have a vote in what a new collective bargaining agreement will look like. Season ticket holders can't offer counter-proposals or get the two parties to the bargaining table. But when the NFL players make an ad to run around the time of the Super Bowl called "Let us Play," there is no question that this is about the hearts and minds of the fans as well.

The ticket fiasco isn't helping the league in that department.

The NFL has built itself up in the sports landscape to look like clear-headed grownups when compared with the NBA, MLB and NHL. A lockout will harm that. But more importantly, the NFL needs to appear to be a league that is fair and reasonable, whether it is dealing with players or displaced fans.

The NFL has dealt with the ticket holders by being reactionary in dealing with complaints and lawsuits, when a little foresight and a fair offer could have alleviated a public relations disaster.

The stakes are higher in the case of a lockout.

Let's hope that at the bargaining table, the league's lawyers aren't waiting weeks to make their best offer. If they are, make sure you're looking up terms like NLRB, decertification and antitrust. Because that's what you'll be reading about instead of rookie camp and OTAs this spring.