The first three weeks of the 2012 NFL Season brought lots of excitement, with rookie Robert Griffin III tossing bombs, the Arizona Cardinals starting 3-0, and receiver Calvin Johnson already hauling in 9 touchdowns.
But none of that compares to the largest underlying theme of the season: the dismal job performance of replacement NFL referees, some of whom were fired from the Lingerie Football League (yes, that’s a thing and no, we’re not linking to it) for incompetence. The replacements botched call after call on national TV while the league negotiated a new contract for their regular full-time officials.
As the league finally reaches an agreement to end the embarrassment, what can we learn from their negotiation?
It’s all about leverage.
The NFL thought they had leverage. They were riding high as America’s most popular sports league, they had the best product on the field, and were making buckets of money. They were in it for the long term, and were willing to put out an inferior product in the short term to get what they wanted, betting that fans would still watch.
In that regard, they were right. According to USA Today, the ratings for the first NFL game on September 5 were more than double the broadcast network TV coverage of the Democratic National Convention.
If anything, as the controversy grew each week, more people tuned in based on all the drama. Unfortunately, the increased viewership was there for all the wrong reasons. The NFL had become a kind of soap opera, with viewers wondering what would go wrong next.
In reality, it was the official, experienced referees that had more leverage. As outrage over incompetence grew and the stakes got higher for all involved (teams were outraged over losses, players were at greater risk for injury, and an estimated $150 million in gambling money was effected with one game’s outcome), it became obvious that the NFL needed to act immediately.
There are two ways you can gain leverage in your negotiations. The first is to have options. That means it’s best to be looking for a new opportunity while you’re still in your current job. In this manner, you’re not desperate to take a new position that isn’t a good fit because even if you’re not in love with your job, at least you have a backup. The same goes when deciding on an offer. If a company knows this is the only option open for you, they might be tempted to come in lower on salary. But if you are fortunate enough to be contemplating two or more offers at the same time, suddenly you become a more desirable commodity.
The second way to gain leverage is to get so good at your job that it causes significant pain to your employers to have to get someone new. Despite the replacement referees having the same “job title,” the NFL learned very quickly that inexperienced officials were no match for the incredible speed at which the pro game moved. The same goes for business. It might seem easy to replace one Creative Director with another, but if your current employee is one of the best in the business, has a decade of experience, and is intertwined tightly with a company’s brand, it becomes more of a challenge.
Other lessons learned:
- Play nice: Remember that this is a business decision, so it’s important to keep your cool and be professional at all times. When negotiating a raise or promotion, always highlight your accomplishments and how you’ve helped the company, as opposed to putting down other employees (“I work twice as hard as John and he makes 20% more than me!”). In the media, the NFL was careful to defend their temporary workers as best they could. And while it would have been very easy to gloat, the common thread with both the negotiating referees and most (intelligent) sports reporters was, “It’s not fair to put all the blame on the replacements, they’re doing the best they can, but they just don’t have the experience to perform at this high level.” On the flip side, coaches that did lose their cool were punished (such as Bill Belichick’s $50,000 fine).
- We live in a networked world: One of the major things working against the NFL was public outcry. Not only did millions see the results of poor officiating on TV, but in the age of social media they had blogs, Facebook, and Twitter to further vent their outrage. Many even went old school, leaving 70,000 voice mails at the league office after the controversial Monday Night Football game between Green Bay and Seattle. In most cases, your negotiation will be low profile and take place behind closed doors, but that doesn’t mean your network can’t help you. Tapping into your social circle, both in person and online, will help you find new opportunities and discover valuable market research to determine your worth.
- It’s not just about the money: Note that the only factor being discussed wasn’t just money. Sure, they reportedly got an increase from an average of $149,000 a year in 2011 to $173,000 in 2013, rising to $205,000 by 2019. But other items being discussed were a developmental squad, pension, and retirement benefits. This is one of the major mistakes that the average person makes. Yes, salary is important and generally the first thing discussed. But there is so much more to an overall compensation package that can make a job fulfilling, including vacation time, job title, working remotely, health benefits, stock options, and additional training. Which of those benefits is up for discussion at your next negotiation? Ask.
- Get some help: ESPN reported that federal mediators were brought in to assist with the negotiations. When you’re just a single employee without any experience negotiating, it can be daunting to go up against a major corporation, and their HR machine that does this for a living every single day. Reaching out to a friend, a mentor, or a career consultant for assistance can give you more confidence and potentially make you thousands more.
- Strive for a win-win: In the end, both sides got what they needed. Many might think that due to the controversy, the NFL completely caved, gave the officials whatever they wanted, and begged them to come back. Not true. While the outrage definitely served to accelerate talks and add a sense of urgency, in the end there was give and take over multiple deal points, and concessions on both sides. So while there was some significant pain through three weeks, let’s hope the completed negotiation makes the league, the refs, the players, the coaches, and the fans happy.
Jim Hopkinson is The Hired Guns’ resident salary coach. His 1:1 consulting has helped clients negotiate increased offers as high as $20,000. His next class is November 14.