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Tournament Referees – Do We Have a Problem?

If you’re organizing a tournament, one of many vexing variables is determining if you have enough referees to run the number of matches you forecast. Everyone spends time with this, including the tournament directors in our clubs, and for most the issue seems to be a combination of several variables– the number of referees available, their experience level, their ability to run a medal match, our ability to efficiently organize them, and perhaps more.

To see what others are doing about this, we reached out recently to a variety of folks (USAPA Ambassadors, USAPA officials, major tournament directors, club presidents and the like) to ask their opinions and suggestions. This article summarizes some of what we were told and also presents a best-practices view inspired by the dialogue.

So, first, is there really a tournament referee “problem” at all?

Clearly, (we are practicing for the upcoming political year) the answer is definitely both yes and no. Yes, there is an availability issue, but mostly it exists in particular situations. In newer or smaller clubs or in clubs remote from other clubs who can help out, there is often a real shortage of experienced referees at tournament-time.

However, in clubs which have had ongoing referee training programs or are nearby other clubs with trained referees, there is not as much of an availability problem. Places like Palm Creek (one of the two venues for the upcoming 2015 Nationals in Casa Grande, AZ), already holds one of just a few Tier-Two tournaments. To quote Rosemary Reese, the Palm Creek USAPA Ambassador, “Our Duel in the Desert Tournament had 672 matches this year, with no referee problems.” Thanks there goes to the foresight and persistence of Tom and Jeanne Gearhart who have run referee training programs at Palm Creek (and for the surrounding clubs of Mission and Robson Ranch) for many years.

Another “yes, unfortunately, comes when you ask if referees are perhaps not sufficiently trained at some tournaments – even when the overall number of available referees is sufficient to populate the number of matches. We’ve already mentioned referee training programs that exist in clubs like Palm Creek and there are many other clubs who have been running regular referee training programs as well. People consistently believe this has helped boost both the numbers and quality of their referees.

Additionally (we suppose some would substitute “Finally”, if they were being snarky), the USAPA is now beta-testing its referee certification program which should be in place next year. Once results of the USAPA beta are analyzed and the final program is made known to all, it should be easier for every clubs to bring more new referees up to speed . Add in the trend towards both mentoring and shadowing – having experienced referees on-court coaching and assisting less experienced referees during the training weeks leading up to the tournament (or even having them on the courts together during the tournament) – is also on the rise, and “…this accelerates a new referee’s progress dramatically” according to one knowledgeable respondent.

We thought another innovative suggestion was to have the trainees (who were shadowed by experienced referees) first look ONLY look at foot-faults and other rules violations and not simultaneously attend to mundane score-keeping duties – the experienced referee does that part. It was noted that focusing referee-trainees on rules violations and increasingly-used and difficult-to-referee techniques such as stacking and half-stacking is very critical if one is to become a truly competent referee. (Click here for a very good article on stacking!)

So – what else (beyond training and mentoring/shadowing) are folks doing to increase the pool of referees, generally? Lots of things. As Donna Christensen, President of Palm Creek Pickleball Club said, “It takes a village to make it work.” But some things seem to be considered more universally than others.

For instance, paying referees per match is quickly becoming more acceptable, with the usual pay thus far being $5 per match, but with some folks (e.g. the ever-generous Mike Wolfe!) going to $10 per match (and $5 for a faster singles match). Paying amateur referees has precedent; it is a common practice in other sports – here in Bend, for example, league basketball referees earn $20-25 for a one-hour stint, soccer games pay from $10 – 25/35 per one-hour game depending on level, lacrosse refs earn around $20 for an hour’s match, baseball refs make maybe $48 for 2/12 hours, wrestling matches (very brief) pay out about $4 each – every sport seems to organize so that a referee handling a lot of matches might earn (as much as) $100 a day. Whether this is recorded via IRS form 1099 or paid in cash is interesting to wonder about. In any event clearly the pay precedent is there.

While nobody argued the possibility this can create good, this can also have bad ramifications, per some. Note that while it may inspire more people to referee, it could make some tournaments much less profitable (quick math showed us that our recent USAPA Pacific NorthWest Regional Big Country RV Bend Pickleball Tournament – which tournament won the award for having the longest name – would have only done a little better than breaking even if we had paid just $5 per match to referees.

Most who commented noted this decrease in profitability as a significant potential problem. Tournaments are THE major fund-raiser for some clubs, and paying a referee for each match could be a decided negative to cash-flow. The attending solution mentioned is raising tournament entry fees; perhaps an easy enough “fix” until the new higher prices finally start causing some tournament players to stay home. (We’ve seen no evidence of that yet – many or most tournaments are running completely full!)

Additionally, in major venues like the Nationals, one of the key organizers said “Paying referees especially at such a prestigious event only puts a target on the backs of the uncertified.” A sentiment which we think makes sense….expectations would be higher of referees earning money for their efforts..and we think should be.

Pay or no pay, many tournaments – maybe most of any size – are using incentives, such as holding raffles specific only for referees, one raffle ticket being typically given for each match reffed, with paddles being the usual awards. Some clubs are giving away two or three paddles to referees for each day of the tournament, and other prizes as well. (Paddles are often donated but in some cases they are purchased, btw.) Other inducements include special refreshments, food and beverage and hanging-around tents, and tickets for free lunches. Other suggestions for future inducements included a referee receiving a paddle for having reffed “X” number of matches, “X” defined by the person making the suggestion as perhaps ten matches.

In case you are wondering the Nationals is right up there with a couple of other major tournaments in terms of non-monetary daily referee inducements. Per Dave Jordan, USAPA President, “What we do at Nationals has been mostly the same all three years I have been TD (ed. Note – TD=Tournament Director). We give all refs who work 4 gamesor more a lunch voucher and we hold a daily referee only raffle with about 8-10 prizes each day. (This is) About the same as most major tournaments.”

As of this writing this year’s bag of inducements at Nationals haven’t been officially filled, due in part to its being a split venue with different referee coordinators at Robson Ranch and Palm Creek (both in Casa Grande, AZ) – but will probably again be considerable.

As an aside, the above are only the referee-specific actions; most clubs are also hosting or considering hosting ALL-tournament-volunteer raffles and after-tournament parties and the like, and the referees are part of that pretty often as well. (Exception – if there is a volunteer raffle each day, tthere may well be a referee-specific raffle that same day with the referees only participating in their own raffle.)

And there is always the question from the dark side – if there is a problem either acquiring enough referees or finding quality referees, can’t we solve the problem another way, and simply do away with referees, either entirely or mostly? While the USAPA today requires a referee for each match in a USAPA-certified tournament, folks are (apparently) not always seeing USAPA certification as necessary and a number of respondents talked about successfully holding small tournaments (100 participants) without either USAPA certification or referees. Others talked about only having referees for medal matches. (We recognize that there have been other major tournaments, e.g. St. George’s Huntsman Games, that lead the way in this no-referee discussion before, of course.)

Many more opined that the USAPA should more seriously consider allowing the “medal match only” option, while others said this was not a guarantee of better referees even in those matches. Proponents of the “medal match only” option thought they could insure better referees by pre-selecting their good referees and not having to use the great, unwashed mass of inexperienced referees. (We happen to be among those tournament players who prefer to play with referees, even inexperienced, as it makes our tournament time feel a bit “special”…..important since tournament days can be VERY long and anything that positively differentiates the day can’t be all bad, right?)

An interesting suggestion, we thought, was made by Tom Gearhart…that it be mandatory for tournament players to become referee-certified (once the USAPA certification process is rolling). “I suggest it be a rule that, after you have played in three USAPA-sanctioned tournaments, you must then go through referee training and become certified in order to play in any more. You are then required to referee one match for every three you play in.” Tom’s thought directs well towards those who play in many tournaments but don’t “give back” – and we like the sentiment!

There is another issue entirely that many brought up – the relative unavailability of line-judges. This simple-seeming task is actually quite annoying. Today you need four line judges for each medal match (or at least for each Gold match, assuming you do not use them for the Bronze matches, which is optional). And this need often arises late in the day when fewer people remain that you can badger, guilt or shame into line-judging.

Steve Arthur, Referee Coordinator at Eloy’s Robson Ranch spoke to this one for everybody, we think. “….having to go around and beg (for line judges) prior to each medal match, is a pain. (And)…you want people that know what is going on and are able to make and stand behind their calls. We all make mistakes and some players will, in the heat of the match, give the line judge a hard time. This, as with reffing, makes that person shy away. There are other reasons for not getting a good response, i.e. friends with players, wanting to watch instead. I would like to have the line judges in advance, but haven’t figured it out yet….”

A few clubs are working on the line-judge availability issue through more positive inducements (pizza parties late in the day, again, raffles, and etc.) and through line-judge training used to increase comfort levels among folks who have not previously line-judged. One of the selling points, folks say, is it gives people who would like to volunteer for something a way to do so without too much difficulty.

Obviously, this all is a complex subject. So – what, in our humble opinion, represents today’s best practices overall? If you’ve waded through the above, the following will come as no great surprise. (Note: we take liberties with “today”, in this example the present includes the USAPA accreditation process, which will be rolled out in 2016.)

  1. Referee numbers can be increased through training, done months or at least weeks ahead of the tournament.
  2. Training should be coupled with mentoring or shadowing with experienced referees.
  3. Referees should be accredited. Once it’s available in 2016, clubs should consider using the USAPA beta accreditation process. We don’t agree with all of it in its beta form but we certainly think that any standardized process – including this one even as it stands – will help clubs by having a proven-success model they can follow.
  4. Regularly paying referees, whether we like it or not, seems a real possibility in the future. At the very least a platform of considerable inducements should always be in place. And if we are going to pay referees, best practices might include having advanced programs of certification and allowing only more advanced referees (even among all who are certified) to referee medal matches.
  5. Many believe the USAPA would lose little in allowing smaller certified tournaments (say, 100 participants or less? We’re not positive where the break point would be…) to operate without referees – at the very least, without referees up until the medal matches. But we’d say it’s a “future best practice” the USAPA could carefully consider.

You probably also noted that this article does not talk about how to most efficiently use the number of referees it has. This would have us think about tournament efficiency generally; e.g. how much time is allowed for matches to begin, utilization of runners so that referees can stay on court for a couple of hours at a time, and etc. This is another interesting topic and we’ll talk about that in the near future.