A referee reviews a play between the Kansas City Chiefs and the New Orleans Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on September 23, 2012 in New Orleans, La.
A referee reviews a play between the Kansas City Chiefs and the New Orleans Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on September 23, 2012 in New Orleans, La. - 
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The National Football League has reached an agreement to end a lockout of referees. The league will give existing referees much of what they want for the next few years, including a defined pension plan (rather than a 401k) and a pay raise.

The deal comes just a couple days after a botched call by replacement refs. That misstep might have pushed negotiations over the edge, says Nelson Gayton, executive director of the Institute for Media, Entertainment and Sports.

The business of the NFL, he adds, is about fans and the money they bring to the game. When the fan experience is diminished by these bad calls, the owners feel the pressure.

"I think after the debacle of a bad call -- and I should say a slew of bad calls over this past week," Gayton argues, "it's about time to pay the NFL refs what they wanted."

"At some point, the fans who are ultimately paying the check will raise hell," he says. "Maybe the NFL is more important to consumers than air traffic controllers [were]."

So does this mean that the whole theory behind replacement players -- the model made famous by Ronald Reagan during the air traffic controllers' strike of the 1980s -- is losing steam?

"I'm not sure replacements very well in professional sports," claims Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist at Smith College.

"One of the problems here with the NFL is that it's a very skilled job to be an NFL referee." The game moves quickly, and referees need not only the mental ability to make tough calls, but also need to be in good physical shape.

Scott Rosner teaches sports business management at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business. He says that professional sports are different from other industries, because the talent is the product -- unlike with airlines, or other industries.

While a consumer may see no difference in the airplane they are sitting on that was assembled by a replacement worker, they quickly can tell the difference when it comes to who is on the field, and who is sitting out the game.


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Follow Jeremy Hobson at @jeremyhobson