Super Bowl Seat Dispute May Put NFL at Disadvantage in Labor Negotiations

The Super Bowl seating foulup, where 400 people who paid $800 each for tickets to the National Football League’s title game weren’t given seats, may fester and put public opinion in the players’ favor in the NFL’s labor dispute, crisis management experts said.

The league was prohibited from using 800 of the temporary seats it installed for the Feb. 6 game at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, by safety authorities. It found tickets for half of the displaced fans. Since then, the league has been sued over it, and it upped the compensation for the unseated 400 twice.

The NFL’s bungling may not be forgotten as it tries to change players compensation in a new labor agreement, even after the league two days ago offered each of the 400 a free ticket, airfare and accommodations for any Super Bowl. Without a new agreement, the 2011 season is in jeopardy.

“I think the players’ union is salivating on this,” said Ashley McCown, the president of Solomon McCown & Co., a Boston- based crisis communications and public affairs firm. “It’s a nice tee-up for the players’ association going into negotiations.”

When the Green Bay Packers beat the Pittsburgh Steelers 31- 25 in the Super Bowl, the 400 fans without seats were forced to watch the game on televisions inside the stadium. The league offered them a triple refund that night; now it is up to a ticket, airfare and a hotel room to any Super Bowl.

Record-Breaking

Ronn Torossian, chief executive officer of New York-based public-relations firm 5WPR, said some may perceive that the NFL was more concerned with breaking the Super Bowl attendance record of 103,985 than fan comfort. The NFL, which said it wasn’t targeting the 31-year-old mark, fell 766 people short.

“On the verge of a possible lockout, it something that’s hurtful and anti-fan,” Torossian, who has represented clients including Pamela Anderson and Snoop Dogg, said by telephone. “While there was a really great game on the field, the NFL’s brand off the field has been hurt.”

Before kickoff at the Super Bowl, the NFL offered a $2,400 refund to inconvenienced fans. The next day, the league added a ticket to next year’s Super Bowl. Then it gave fans the current offer.

“If you look at the way the NFL has handled past situations, they typically don’t move the chains down the field so fast,” McCown said. “Their approach is frankly really odd, and I think it shows the weakness of their position.”

McCown said by changing its policy the NFL sent the wrong message to fans.

“A basic tenet of crisis communication is you don’t want to die a death of 1,000 cuts, so come out of the gate with your strongest offer, don’t up the ante every single day,” McCown added. “To me, the message between the lines there is we’re going to see how little we can get away with.”

Monday Morning Quarterbacks

NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said the league is focused on doing what’s right for fans rather than “Monday morning quarterbacking by outside experts.” He said the NFL acknowledged its mistakes, apologized and decided to offer a broader range of options after talking with affected fans about the seating situation.

“We know we have to earn back the trust of these fans,” McCarthy said by e-mail. “We are reaching out to every single fan who was affected to tell them we are sorry. We are listening to their stories and offering them options that we believe are fair.”

‘Perception Is Reality’

Chris Rosica, CEO of Rosica Strategic Public Relations, said the seat incident goes beyond how 400 Super Bowl fans were affected. It may be publicly seen as a reflection of how the NFL and owners take fans into consideration.

“We always say in our business that perception is reality,” Rosica, who has lectured at Fordham, Seton Hall and Pace universities, said by phone from his office in Paramus, New Jersey. “It certainly could be perceived as the NFL they’re trying to set a record and they don’t care about the fan. That’s the disparity among the ordinary fan in how they perceive the NFL and in some instances the players’ union.”

By extension, any work stoppage might be regarded as NFL owners again taking something away from fans.

The NFL and the players’ union remain apart in talks on a new labor deal and canceled a negotiating session that was scheduled for today in Washington. The two sides also met the day before the Super Bowl, holding talks which Commissioner Roger Goodell called “beneficial.” Among the topics of dispute are the share of revenue players should receive, rookie salary limits, benefits for retired players, and the expansion of the regular season to 18 games from 16.

Union spokesman George Atallah said a lockout would lead to widespread ticketing problems worse than those at the Super Bowl, a situation he called a “fiasco.”

“Imagine what’s going to happen to season-ticket holders who bought a game they can’t get into,” Atallah said at a news conference. “That’s what we have to focus on.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Erik Matuszewski in New York at matuszewski@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Sillup at msillup@bloomberg.net

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