Friday, February 25, 2011

$$$...or Why Refs are a Bad Idea

It's all about the $$$. If you want refs, be prepared to pay. A lot.

A two-ref system basically requires that each team carry a ref. (Two refs per game, two teams per game, one ref each.) Experience with observers tells us that it is incredibly difficult to get observers for games. A couple years ago at Solstice, I arranged to pay the observers $100. I thought $100 seemed like a pretty good incentive and that I'd have no trouble getting luck. Realistically, you have to push that number up around $300 or more (plus travel) to make it worth peoples' time and you'd still be getting crappy refs. Let's look at the numbers.

A typical tournament is going to require a ref work ~9 hours a day for two days. Even if you call Sunday short, you are still looking at 16 hours for the weekend. You want to pay them $300? That comes out to be $15/hr, which is short of what co-rec referees make to ref city league soccer games. Anyone co-rec players out there think that's the quality of reffing that's going to bring our sport forward? If you want quality refs, you should expect to pay $500 a weekend. Per team. Per tournament. Plus travel. For a Nationals contending college team that's an extra $2500-$3000. For a Nationals contending club team that's an extra $3000-$4000. Nationals not included.

Paying and having refs would not be optional. This past weekend in San Diego, a couple dudes showed up and observed a few Open games, but the majority of the Open games and all the women's games at Prez Day went un-observed. It wasn't a big deal because the current system we have, where the observers follow the players' calls and the players lead the officiation can function smoothly with and without observers. We can play a tournament without observers and it isn't going to greatly effect the game when we do have observers. But refs!? If there are going to be refs at Regionals and Nationals, there damn well better be refs at every major tournament.

At Oregon this year, we have already had two starters leave the team because they can't afford it and a number of the women are scraping by. Adding $2500 in a sport where most teams receive little to no funding or external support would be difficult. It would be difficult for the dedicated teams and impossible for the developing teams. Teams already balk at paying $200 for Sectionals. What would happen if it went to $700? They wouldn't go.


  1. I have had my disagreements with some of your sentiments on adding third party officiating or refs to Ultimate. This is one time when you are 100% right. Currently, Ultimate doesn't generate enough revenue to be able to afford refs. They are a luxury we just don't have. Someone has to pay them and someone has to train them, and those too things are expensive.

    To me, if there is one major deterrent to Ultimate being refereed, it is this. I just don't see any time in the near future when there will be enough money in Ultimate for it.

  2. @Keith: What are your disagreements?

  3. I think this is pretty much the only point to consider now. It cost $60 a game for a single referee for a basketball game... for U11 girls. We are not going to get big money people in ultimate because ultimate is perhaps the ONLY small money sport. When there is enough revenue, we could do what NCAA does for tennis (umpires at finals, everything else self-officiated). We might have observers make active calls on more issues, but for now it must be technically possible for two teams to play a game without officials or neutral staff.

  4. Someone will likely soon post that adding refs will make the game more watchable and draw in paying fans. I would like to preemptively tell them to be quiet. As people have explained in other threads, the rules of ultimate are incredibly difficult to enforce without the players having a say. I'm thinking specifically of marking fouls and picks, but I'm sure there are other examples of infractions that referees would likely miss. If you want players to continue to have a say, keep the hybrid observer/self-referee system. If you want referees, get ready pay more to play and to make major rules changes to make the game referee-able.

  5. @Lou

    Unfortunately, I made a lengthy response to the "One More Eye" post about accuracy and then it never went through. I was sad...

    When I find the energy, I will rehash it. I think the gist was that, while you have a very impressive amount of Ultimate experience at various levels, the ideas on accuracy and.. oh hell, I'll do the whole thing.

    I think what you're saying sounds almost entirely speculative. I think saying "even the worst games are called more accurately than the best reffed games" has no basis. As someone who reffed high school basketball (for only one season, admittedly) I will be the first to admit refs never have a perfect game. Ever. I don't think Ultimate players do either, though, and certainly, with their focus elsewhere, they make as many or more errors in judgment. And it isn't just bad calls or contests - what about all the calls they didn't call that were a violation of the rules?

    In addition, you spoke a bit on fairness and said that sometimes one team gets all the calls and that makes an unbalanced game. This can happen in Ultimate because there is no system of consequences. Make as many bad calls as you want, the other team can only contest. And do it all tournament if you want, doesn't matter, because it won't affect your next tournament or even your next game. Foul on the mark if you'd like, no biggie. For refs, that isn't true. They have oversight and if they referee poorly, they are disciplined accordingly. Most reffed games where one team gets all the calls? Usually, its either coincidence or that team is doing something over and over. I called some teams for far more fouls than their opponents, and the fans always felt it was unfair, but it was often because one team was poorly coached or overly physical.

    Finally, you said adding refs will increase cheating as people try to game the system, but I think that is happening now. Adding refs won't add the problem, because we have it now.

    I just felt like the whole post was built off speculative arguments. It also completely ignored the objectivity vs. subjectivity argument or the fact that refs can completely focus on rules enforcement while players cannot.

    I do think their are points in favor of player-officiated or observer'd Ulti. I believe letting players decide what is relevant to the game allows more freedom. I think it teaches a lot in Youth Ultimate. It is unique. It creates a sense of community by forcing interaction. And it is a bajillion times cheaper.

  6. @Keith: Very interesting comment. Thanks for taking the time to respond. I agree that my post is speculative, but so is every other post about reffing in ultimate. We all have to work off of what we know, which is SotG ultimate, reffing in other sports and the few reffed games of ultimate we've played or witnessed. (~15 for me.)
    It's cool to get a ref's perspective on calling games. You are right to want to separate accuracy from bias. It is unclear to me whether SotG or reffing is better on these two counts. Our current system (self-officiation plus observers) is very accurate and pretty unbiased. The most optimistic assessment of reffing offers a marginal improvement. Is it worth changing the whole system for a potential marginal improvement?

  7. @Lou: I think there is a fear that, as the sport grows larger, there is too much of a hole for cheaters to wriggle in. Ultimate has, as far as I can tell, long been a "community sport"; everybody knows everybody, sees everybody, plays everybody. Ultimate justice is governed by reputation and being liked and people wanting to play with and against you. As the sport grows later, I think there is a fear that more and more cheating will go unchecked, so perhaps some feel refereeing is a preventative move. I don't know how unfounded those fears are or are not, however.

    Another point for officials, in my opinion, is adding legitimacy to the game with objective refereeing crews who have no vested interest in the outcome of the game. I think, long term, that it will help exposure and all the benefits that come with that.

    As for speculation, I guess you are right. For now, the topic is mostly speculative, but I just wanted to caution about getting too wrapped up in that.