NFL Crisis Plan: Do Nothing

On Monday, Sept. 24, something happened in an NFL game that sent ripples throughout the country. Millions of fans were tweeting their anger over the controversy. In between campaigning and being the leader of the free world, President Obama shared his thoughts too. Analysts were speechless when they tried to describe what had just happened. The NFL, on the other hand, stayed silent.

If you missed it last week, take a look here.

For those who are unfamiliar with the situation, this call was controversial because the regular NFL referees were on strike. To fill the void, replacement referees that usually work college or high school games were used. The new officials struggled in the first three weeks of the NFL season, and became part of the national dialog after the Monday night game.

For most companies in the world, a disaster like this would be a nightmare for the PR department. One would assume the NFL would be scrambling to get their story out there to try to maintain their image. The NFL is not a normal company, however. They have no competition and are extremely popular despite relying on replacement referees. Every week, stadiums across the country are full of fans wearing their teams’ colors like a badge of honor. Millions more watch the games from home and every Sunday from Labor Day to the first week in February is dedicated to America’s favorite sport. How popular is it? The once-a-year Emmy Awards Ceremony attracted 8 million less viewers than the NFL game that was on that night.

Let’s take a look at how the NFL responded. The day after the infamous call, the NFL released a statement. If this statement were an assignment in a college PR class, it would probably earn a C. It does a good job stating the facts of what happened, but it does not offer a solution. Also, without a quote it lacks a personal touch. It would seem like this communication plan failed. With no questions answered, fans demanded that the referee strike end.

And then, a day before Week 4 started, the strike ended and the regular referees returned to the sidelines. Maybe the NFL’s plan was successful after all. They listened to their fans and finished the deal after all the pressure from the media, right? Unfortunately for the NFL, this is not the case. Commissioner Roger Goodell responded to the media after the deal was reached.

“I believe we would have reached an agreement this week regardless of Monday night, Sunday night or last weekend. Everybody was to the point of getting this concluded.”

Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated

Goodell went on to explain that negotiations take time and that he wished that things would have moved faster. He was far from apologetic, however.

“Sports are imperfect. Officiating is imperfect. Life is imperfect. That is why, I think, we all love sports, but you always want to try to avoid those controversial plays, particularly at the end of a game.”

Currently, it seems that all is right in the NFL world. Week 4 came and went without a major controversy or a call decided by a referee. There seemed to be no hard-feelings felt by the fans after this fiasco. In fact, the referees received a standing ovation in their first game back on Thursday night. The NFL successfully came out of a controversy by releasing a statement and negotiating a contract that should have been resolved before the season started.

Photo courtesy of

Should the NFL have done more? In terms of a communication plan, they did the minimum in this situation. Should Roger Goodell apologize to the fans for three weeks of sub-par officiating? ¬†How would this communication plan work for a “normal” company?

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1 Response to NFL Crisis Plan: Do Nothing

  1. naberra says:

    As this post mentioned, the NFL does not have competition in its market so therefore their audience doesn’t have an alternative choice if they are disappointed or unsatisfied about something happening such as the substitute referee fiasco. In order to maintain a respected position in the eyes of their stakeholders though, a proper communication plan is necessary, which includes keeping an eye on social media for the fans’ perspective and their employees.
    I think the statement that the Commissioner made about how the deal was reached was not worded well, in fact more condescending and belittling of audience and stakeholder opinion. He clearly only cared about who the stakeholders were in his eyes–the referees and the NFL organization.
    The fact that the referees’ contract was not negotiated in time for the season’s beginning is definitely a structural problem, but PR can play an important role by sending repeated messages of reassurance and understanding until NFL fans positively receive and register it sincerely.

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