Last updated: September 25, 2012 10:58 pm

Replacement refs stir US football fans’ ire

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Jordy Nelson of the Green Bay Packers, right, runs with the ball against the Pittsburgh Steelers during the NFL Super Bowl XLV on February 6, 2011 at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas©AFP

Jordy Nelson of the Green Bay Packers, right, runs with the ball against the Pittsburgh Steelers during the NFL Super Bowl XLV on February 6, 2011 at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas

A pension dispute between the National Football League and its 120 part-time referees has triggered a crisis of confidence for US sport’s most lucrative television franchise.

An NFL Referees Association lockout began in June, but concerns have boiled over after disputed calls by replacement officials, some of whom normally work at high school games or the Lingerie Football League.

A disputed touchdown gave the Seattle Seahawks a 14-12 victory over the Green Bay Packers on Monday night, prompting Mike McCarthy, the Packers’ coach, to complain: “I’ve never seen anything like that in all my years in football.”

The Baltimore Ravens also won Sunday night’s game against the New England Patriots on a disputed call, prompting Bill Belichick, the Patriots’ coach, to grab a replacement official as he ran off the field. Such incidents have caused uproar on social media sites, threatening a brand on which billions of dollars rest.

Troy Aikman, a former Dallas Cowboys quarterback, tweeted: “These games are a joke.” LeBron James, the basketball star, said he felt “sick” for the Packers, and Jack Welch, former GE chief executive, tweeted that the NFL was being “penny wise and pound [foolish]”.

TJ Lang, a Packers offensive lineman, swore about the new officials on Twitter, inviting the NFL to fine him to pay the regular referees. The NFL said it had reviewed Monday night’s video and would not overturn the on-field ruling.

The controversy has spilled into the political arena in an election year when labour disputes such as Chicago’s teacher strike are making headlines.

“Terrible,” Barack Obama told reporters as he walked from Marine One to the White House: “I’ve been saying for months, we’ve gotta get our refs back.” White House spokesman Jay Carney said the president had watched the game and “thinks there was a real problem with that call”.

Paul Ryan, the Republican vice-presidential nominee, joked meanwhile that the replacement officials must work for Mr Obama’s budget office.

Wisconsin, home to the Packers, is a battleground state known for union-busting activity. “If tonight’s game doesn’t make the NFL settle with the real refs this season will be a joke,” a Wisconsin state senator, Jon Erpenbach, tweeted, before giving out a number for fans to call Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner.

Protracted disaffection with the refereeing could dent the most lucrative US league. The NFL has renewed its TV rights deals for 65 to 70 per cent premiums this year, lifting rights revenues to $6bn by 2014 and swelling its total revenues beyond the current $9bn.

CBS, Comcast’s NBC flagship, DirecTV, News Corp’s Fox channel and Walt Disney’s ESPN network depend heavily on the live NFL audiences that advertisers find increasingly hard to find outside large sporting events.

“The NFL, number one, is the key to all sports television,” CBS chief executive Les Moonves told analysts last week. “There is only one NFL,” added Chase Carey, News Corp’s chief operating officer.

To date, ratings appear not to have suffered. The season started with NBC’s Sunday Night Football recording its biggest audience aged 18-49 for 15 years. Ratings for Sunday’s Patriots-Ravens game were up 8 per cent on a comparable game from last year.

But the NFL is facing calls to end the lockout. A letter from the NFL Players Association last week said the lockout was jeopardising player safety “and the integrity of the game”.

Gamblers also lost out, with John Avello, director of the sportsbook at the Wynn casino in Las Vegas telling ESPN $150m in bets could have been affected. A spokesman for Sportsbook.ag, a sports betting site which refunded some bets, estimated that the figure could be $200m-$250m.

The Lingerie Football League compounded the NFL’s embarrassment, stating that it had parted ways with some of the people now officiating in the NFL. “We have a lot of respect for our officials but we felt the officiating was not in line with our expectations,” it said.

Additional reporting by Jason Abbruzzese

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