The economics of working the refs

This weekend, I reffed a U-17 boys soccer game. 

Referees for this league have been under the constant instruction for the past few years that this is a top tier league with numerous D-1 scholarship players and a few future professionals in it, so we should call the game with the assumption that soccer is a contact sport. Blue team drove five hours to the field from one direction and Red drove four hours from the other direction.   Blue team played a very English style while Red team played an Italian style. 

Blue started the game with hard but legal shoulder charges into Red’s attackers.  Blue’s holding midfielders both looked like decent draft prospects as middle linebackers (6-2/6-4 225 to 230 pounds apiece) and they knew how to use their strength to their advantage.  As a referee, I was fine with the level of contact as it was shoulder to shoulder, only occuring while the ball was in playing distance and Blue immediately disengaged without any extraneous contact after the ball was released. 

Red was not happy.  They chirped constantly.  Red #18 was a little guy who was trying to play a speed game.  Blue’s holding midfielders would body him every time he got a release and Red #18 was consistently looking back to me for a foul.  I was not seeing a foul, I was seeing a weight room issue.

The Red coach was trying to work me.  Every time Red #18 was within 10 yards of  a defender, he was moaning and asking for a call and expressing his disbelief that I was not seeing the blatantly obvious foul.  Red #18  started to flop and dive.  This kept on going for the entire game.  He never got the fouls that he wanted as I was not seeing a foul.  When his players were getting illegally challenged, I was fast on the whistle, but I was allowing Blue to play strong.

At the end of the game, the coach came to me for a conversation in the middle of the field.  He said that I would never work one of his games again.  My response was simple and direct:

“That’s fine coach, please call the assignor, Jenny Doe to arrange that.  Her number is 555-867-5309.”  He was surprised at my non-chalance. 

I had the freedom to call the game as I saw fit without being worked because the economics of the situation favored me, the referee.

Working the refs is effective in all situations against weak, inexperienced or incompetent referees.  Ninety minutes of screaming, bitching and moaning will often produce either indecision or the desire to just appease the noise to limit the noise. 

However, working the good refs is still possible.  I had the freedom to not care what the coach was saying because I would not see his team until next year.  If I  can’t be assigned to his team, there would still be over 900 potential matches to which I could be assigned.  Not reffing one particular team has absolutely no impact on either my income or my potential to have high level, challenging and fun matches.  The power relationship was either neutral or in my favor. 

The power relationship between the coach and the referee is not always equal. 

In my area, there are a few Division 1 NCAA college soccer programs.  Each of those coaches have the ability and willingness to block referees from working their games.  If a referee is blocked from one school, that is not that big of a deal, but if they are blocked from two or more schools for whatever reason, the odds of them having sufficient number of high level games without six hour drives to qualify for play-offs or advancement is extremely low.  This has resulted in some referees becoming homer referees.  They are trying to please both the assessor/evaluator and the home coach.  Both the assessor and the home coach can assert significant control over the referee’s short and long term income. The homer referees may not advance past the first round of college play-offs, but they get a consistent thirty or forty high level matches a year while the non-homers who are good but not amazing may only get ten or fifteen high level matches.  The truly top tier refs can get away without homering while holding a full schedule and getting to the last round(s) of playoffs.  The major college/BCS conferences attempt to get around this problem by flying in referees for major games.

 Thankfully, I’m in a sweet spot where I am a damn good referee, but I also know I am topping out at high level amateur and  D-2/D-3 college where even if two or three coaches don’t want me in the middle, I will always have more offers of work than I can accept.

51 replies
  1. 1
    raven says:

    I spent 20+ years running municipal recreation programs. I worked with large official’s organizations for both adult and youth programs,. I got so sick of the bitching and moaning I gave it up and went to another field. My dad was a highs school coach in the 50’s and 60’s. After he stopped coaching and became an official he had second thoughts about how he had behaved toward officials as a coach. He came to believe that anyone who coached should have to officiate for real. Not some bullshit made-up thing but the real “live fire” thing.

  2. 2
    low-tech cyclist says:

    Now I’ve got that song going through my head. Thanks a lot!

  3. 3
    Ash Can says:

    You and Randinho should tag-team World Cup reporting for BJ this summer. I’d be willing to bet that it would outshine all other English-language reporting on the tournament, by a wide margin.

  4. 4
    Pete Mack says:

    Wow. Coaches can reject refs? Is there a limit on the number of rejections, like in a jury pool? If not, this is a situation ripe for corruption.

  5. 5
    Cervantes says:

    Richard, you might enjoy this:

    In this paper the behaviour of the referees in the Italian soccer (football) league (“Serie A”) is analyzed. Using data on injury (or extra) time subjectively assigned by the referee at the end of the match and controlling for factors which may influence it (players substitutions, yellow and red cards, penalty kicks, etc.), we show that referees are biased in favour of home team, in that injury time is significantly greater if home teams are losing. The refereeing bias increases greatly when there is no running track in the stadium and the crowd is close to the pitch.

    The paper is “Are subjective evaluations biased by social factors or connections? An econometric analysis of soccer referee decisions,” Vincenzo Scoppa (University of Calabria), Empirical Economics (2008), 35:123–140.

    Let me know if you want a copy.

  6. 6
    Pen says:

    Sorry, I got stuck on “assume soccer is a contact sport”. No wonder nobody takes American soccer seriously.

  7. 7
    Barry says:

    @Pete Mack: “Wow. Coaches can reject refs? Is there a limit on the number of rejections, like in a jury pool? If not, this is a situation ripe for corruption. ”

    So far, any sports beyond very low level competition is not just ripe for corruption, but ripe with corruption.

  8. 8
    Richard Mayhew says:

    @Cervantes: yes please, send me a copy

  9. 9
    raven says:

    “I will always have more offers of work than I can accept.”

    Because the idiocy of people have driven so many potential officials out of doing it.

  10. 10
    Mudge says:

    It is nice to hear that you allowed legitimate shoulder tackles, which are only executed properly by high quality players, to occur. The image that comes to mind though, is a 6’4″ defender and a 5’8″ attacker. Shoulder to shoulder is difficult.

  11. 11
    Richard Mayhew says:

    @Pete Mack: At least in my area, the assignor will ask for a justification. The justification can’t be used to reinstate a ref on a team, but it has to at least be superficially plausible. A buddy of mine was blocked from a school because between NCAA, club soccer, men’s league and and women’s amateur, he was seeing the head coach every weekend. They just needed a break.

    Another buddy was blocked from a school as he made a great tactical foul call in added time that resulted in the visiting team scoring a goal which changed the league tie breaker scenario so that the home team was no longer play-off bound. The assessor thought it was a great call, the referee group thought it was a great call as we used it as a clinic tape for the next three years to illustrate a particular point of emphasis, and all twenty two players thought it was a fair call. The fouling play knew he got caught with his hand in the cookie jar. And five years have gone by and my buddy has done NCAA D-1 semi-finals but no games at this school.

    Another colleague is on ban at a school as he ended up dating the assistant coaches’ daughter for 2 years. It started as a conflict of interest ban (legitimate) and has since turned into a F-u ban.

  12. 12
    Cervantes says:

    @Richard Mayhew: Done.

  13. 13
    OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Pen: Except for everyone in their Group.

  14. 14
    Richard Mayhew says:

    @Mudge: @Pen: That is some serious short-hand as I really don’t want to relay the entire 12 hour pre-season clinic for this league. The expectation is that this is a high contact, high skill league with the goal of developping players for the professional ranks.

  15. 15
    Rommie says:

    So was the Jenny line a placeholder for the actual info you gave the coach, or did you really give him the Jenny line verbatim? Because that’s hilarious if you did so.

  16. 16
    JBP says:

    I refereed a game of u17 in Florida, where one of the teams was very upset with how I called the game. (They were whiners and I gave three of them yellow cards for desent and one for diving.) After the game the coach and the players went to my car and circled it waiting for me to come out. I happend to have a friend of mine that would go on to play blocking fullback at the Air Force Academy that was there watching, and he walked me to my car, saw the team and yelled loudly, “EVERYBODY MOVE!” Needless to say they scattered. I never got to ref that team again, thank goodness.

  17. 17
    Richard Mayhew says:

    @Mudge: It is even better when the 5-8 attacker tries to illegally charge the 6-4 defender and bounces off the defender and then looks for a favorable call and goes apeshit when he realizes the whistle was against him.

  18. 18
    Richard Mayhew says:

    @Rommie: Place holder line — The coach has the right to my name and my assignor’s contact information. I had nothing to win by being a dick.

  19. 19
    raven says:

    @JBP: The first high school basketball game I worked in Georgia I traveled with an experienced African American ref. First thing he did when I got in the van was show me his 357.

  20. 20
    Richard Mayhew says:

    @raven: I did basketball for three weeks one year, I gave it up as I realized that I did not grok the sport enough to put up with the abuse. I like the fact that with soccer, if I am dealing with an asshole, I have a perfect justification to get sixty yards away from said asshole. I don’t have that ability with basketball. Basketball is insane — and what is worse is that everyone thinks they know what they are looking at. Soccer is a bit easier as we’re only getting to the first generation of parents who played en masse as kids and therefore think they know what they are looking at despite the fact there was effectively a rules interpretation revolution in the early 90s that makes memories extremely unreliable and unhelpful.

  21. 21
    MikeJ says:

    @Richard Mayhew:

    despite the fact there was effectively a rules interpretation revolution in the early 90s that makes memories extremely unreliable and unhelpful.

    Other sports have problems with parents watching professional level play where the rules are different. Am I correct in thinking that the laws of football are more universal? What sort of things do you call differently?

  22. 22
    raven says:

    @Richard Mayhew: Exactly. I started the youth program at a local department 27 years ago and it was great because the parents knew diddly. Baseball was the worst because they all thought they were experts. I admire people that stick with it but, at least around here, more and more people just did if for the money (as limited as that is).

  23. 23
    Richard Mayhew says:


    A couple of big things.

    The biggest is offsides has become much more favorable to the attacker. Now “even is on” and the expectation is that a player in an offside position has not committed a violation of the laws of the game if they are not actively involved in play. “Involved in play” is a very narrowly tailored definition where if the ball goes through the players’ legs or over a thigh, that is not “involvement”. In the 80s, a player in an offside position would draw a whistle most of the time.

    Advantage has always been a part of the game, however, again, advantage (the situation where a referee sees a foul committed against the attacking team but decides the attacking team is better off with the ball still moving than stopping play for a free kick) has become a much more liberalized interpretation. We’re supposed to wait and see on fouls a whole lot more now.

    Playing in a dangerous manner/dangerous plays — you can play on the ground, you just can’t endanger anyone or prevent someone from legally challenging the ball because they fear for their safety.

    Tackles from side/behind — we’ve cracked down on no-warning tackles. Take a look at WC 1986/1990 and see some of the no call tackles. Those tackles are now 100% red cards/dismissals.

  24. 24
    LeeM says:

    Having coached teams of U-8 thru U-12 boys and girls through our academy program, I really appreciate a referee that is consistent. Some of the more experienced refs make a habit of forewarning the coaches about high level play. There is nothing more frustrating than listening to a whiny or belligerant opposing coach making the calls for the center official, who then repeats the (biased) fouls. There are vocal parents every year that think that the ref should caution a player if their child loses a challenge and falls. Soccer is a contact sport. We tell our players to play the ball & play the whistle. If you get knocked down, get up, win it back. We have one boy who deserves an Oscar for his diving skills, and I thanked the ref who carded him for his second simulation of the game.

  25. 25
    The Pale Scot says:

    I’s gonna remember dat one

  26. 26
    kindness says:

    Did you find Jenny’s number on that bathroom wall?

  27. 27
    Richard Mayhew says:

    @The Pale Scot: That is one of the two best lines I’ve ever heard from a player.

  28. 28
    NorthLeft12 says:

    @Richard Mayhew: Okay, don’t leave us in suspense…….the other was?

    BTW, I used to coach U17 and U19 Girls Premier League Soccer. While the quality of refereeing up here [Ontario] is pitiful, I am not proud, well ashamed really, about my behaviour with some of those refs. I generally gave them the benefit of the doubt, but I was very disappointed in the lack of cards handed out. I always felt that girls at the age and ability that I coached knew the rules and were skillful enough to avoid a lot of the contact that I saw, but continued with cardable fouls because there were no repercussions. I was told by a ref that I respected that giving cards resulted in a lot more work for the ref and potentially less work as well.

  29. 29
    Doug says:

    @Richard Mayhew: Those are big changes. I was a soccer ref back in the 1980s as a high school job and remember it well enough to say those are subtle but crucial interpretations of the laws of the game, and calling them differently makes a real difference.

    Because of my age, I never did anything higher than U14 (or possibly U16 when I was a HS senior) from the center and linesman (as the term was at the time) for local men’s games, but it was a great high school job. Teaches you a hell of a lot about decisions, conflict, people, responsibility and consequences.

    I don’t remember any real parental craziness, but it was good that the association always had the refs’ backs. One thing we had very serious responsibility for was stopping or cancelling a game because of weather — South Louisiana thunderstorms can be bad business.

  30. 30
    Richard Mayhew says:

    @NorthLeft12: High school girls game a few years ago.

    Score was 4-1 with about 10 minutes left. White is up.

    I see a Gold midfielder looking extraordinarily pissed off so I hurry over to her
    “What’s wrong”
    “She said I spit like a man” pointing to a White attacker
    I pull over the White attacker and admonish her to not talk to the other team. Confirm that things are good

    As I’m backpedeling away the Gold attacker gets the last word in and an easy red card:

    “you swallow like a slut…”

    Thankfully I could shift gears and go forward in time to keep the punch from landing.

  31. 31
    Richard Mayhew says:


    I was told by a ref that I respected that giving cards resulted in a lot more work for the ref and potentially less work as well.

    It depends on how you define work. A first card, assuming nothing else in the game, requires paperwork — fill out the game report with the league, get the player pass etc. A fairly easy going game where there is that marginally cardable foul will often lead the referee to choose to ass-chew instead of card if there are no other cards issued up to that point. We’re human and if we can make our life easier, we will. And once the seal has been broken, the second, third and fourth cards are a whole lot easier to issue as the marginal cost of writing up another card is minimal.

    Now on the other hand, a couple of early cards to establish what is acceptable today can make a game very easy. For instance, another game I had this weekend was a U-18 boys game. Both teams had played each other two weeks ago and I was on the line. During that game, the center allowed them to get away with murder behind the play and off the ball. When I had the middle yesterday, I decided I did not want any stupid crap that was not soccer related, so I had two cautions for off the ball/late/ticky-tacky stupid shit within the first four minutes. After that, both teams decided to actually play and had a very enjoyable, high pace, high skill game.

  32. 32
    Richard Mayhew says:

    @LeeM: there are two types of consistency that are at issue. the first is in-game consistency— is the ref calling or not calling the same action the same way for the entire game for both teams. Good coaches and good teams can handle a ref that is calling things in a non-preferred manner as long as the ref is consistently calling it. For instances, I’m okay with a lot of hand to opponent station keeping, but if that hand displaces an opponent, I’ll whistle it. Players can adapt to that.

    The bigger problem is the “ref last week allowed XYZ…” problem. Are we consistent between games — and except at the highest levels, we are not consistent enough.

  33. 33
    Ruckus says:

    I worked in professional sports for 20 yrs as a amateur official and 11 as a professional one. A friend the other day said he thought I was one against 300. He was right, my job was to be exactly that. It gets tiring. It doesn’t matter how well you try to do your job or how well you actually do that job, those 300 or whatever number really don’t want you to be there at all. Except when they are the victims. Then they will momentarily accept you.

  34. 34
    Ruckus says:

    @Richard Mayhew:
    I’ve heard many words uttered in the heat of the moment but I can only remember once that was at that level.
    Have to ask, Were you able to hold on to your dignity while stopping the fight? I think I would have had to laugh at the comeback.

  35. 35
    C.S. says:


    Red team played an Italian style.

    Does not seem to square with this:

    Red #18 was a little guy who was trying to play a speed game.

    But it does explain this:

    Red #18 started to flop, dive and in the immortal words of the Blue captain “going down like a cheerleader with daddy issues.”

  36. 36
    Trollhattan says:

    Know jack all about soccer/futbol (there are rules? strategy? who knew?) but as a soccer dad see a lot of dang matches, especially as daughter unit went into a very competitive Nor-Cal team last year (U12). Last summer they had a tournament in Nevada and in the semifinal were beaten for their first loss of the tournament and eliminated. So they were done and headed for home when they were called back because–voila–they were in the final, which they won.

    Turns out the team that beat them had swapped in older players. There’d been a protest and on reviewing the video (all matches were taped) the officials verified this had occurred and DQd that team and reversed their wins. Coincidentally, they were in the host league.

    Evidently the DQs team parents had been rude and mouthy, even to our players. It would seem they ran a team like a practice criminal enterprise, as everybody from the coaches to the parents to the players had to have been in on the scheme. Thankfully, our girls weren’t quite old enough to have grasped the depths of how vile these folks were. They won, they got trophies, they got a weekend near Lake Tahoe–yay!

    I’m still scratching my head over the whole affair. Under twelves….

  37. 37
    Richard Mayhew says:

    @Ruckus: In that case, I was still processing whilebacking up the attacker and depositing her in the arms of three of her midfielders.

    Once I got the red card issued and the the HOLY SHIT adreneline calmed down, I started giggling like a five year old telling poop jokes at the dinner table. Giggling is not particurly dignified.

    What was your greatest comment?

  38. 38
    Ruckus says:

    Some people have no scruples? Think that fairness is them winning all the time? Can’t understand that other people may have skills better than theirs? Are just assholes?
    All of the above? Just guessing the usual reasons people cheat. Doesn’t need to have any rationality at all.

  39. 39
    Mnemosyne says:


    If you think your daughter may want to continue on with soccer, make sure you start her (and her teammates, if possible) with some PEP training to avoid serious knee injuries. Girls are more prone to knee injuries than boys due to their anatomy, and a lot of coaches don’t realize that extra strength training is necessary for girls to avoid those injuries.

  40. 40
    Ruckus says:

    @Richard Mayhew:
    I’m not sure I should tell the story. Oh what the hell, the statute of limitations has expired.
    Not in the same context, at a sporting event. OK on second thought maybe it really was….
    At a party in the 70s the woman of the house was having a discussion with a close male friend, much booze and other substances were about and somehow it turned a bit, ugly. Woman says in a load voice, “I hope it doesn’t get hard any more.” Immediate reply was “Hope it doesn’t get wet any more.” Talk about your equality. She almost had to be restrained and was speechless, a most unusual trait, one I’d never experienced around her. I believe that I laughed for some time.

  41. 41
    Trollhattan says:


    Thanks very much! I’ll definitely encourage she do more of this–at this age some of the girls are getting very tall, fast and strong, and the disparity among them can be considerable. Have a very sobering National Research Council paper on youth sports concussions, where girls’ soccer ranks very high.

  42. 42
    eyelessgame says:

    The worst I ever treated a ref, as a parent at my daughter’s rec-league U12 local soccer game, when the ref (herself a teen, probably sixteen or so) was failing to call some blatant shoving, I simply shouted out, supportively to our team member – “accidentally” so the ref could hear – “If they shove and the ref doesn’t call it, shove back!”

    My wife was aghast and thought I should get kicked out for it, because we’re really, really not supposed to harass the refs. But the ref simply started noticing and calling fouls after that – on both sides, which was what I wanted and the reason why I said it. (In rec league you really don’t care who wins – you want your kid to get exercise and learn teamwork and have fun, not get scholarships.)

  43. 43
    El Kabong says:

    Did this make the news/internet anywhere? I’d like to know more.

  44. 44
    Arclite says:

    When my daughter turned 10, we put her in a USA affiliated swim team. She was very talented, and the park and rec coach kept telling us to put her up to the next level. When we finally did, she did really well, qualifying for state championships in all 10 events within a few months. There was a girl on another team my daughter’s age and about the same skill level, and often when my daughter would swim against her my daughter would be DQ’d. I finally realized that the girl’s mother was one of the regular officials. When she got DQ’d by her a couple of times in the state championships, that was the last straw, and I complained to some of the officials whose kids were on our team. Word must have gotten back to the woman, since the behavior has stopped. And the girl herself is very nice, but my daughter makes it a point to beat her in every race they have.

    It sounds like you’re a good official, Richard. Good luck out there.

  45. 45
    mikeyes says:

    I remember reffing a state championship between two Florida Rugby teams who had a long history of getting into fights in every encounter. Since I was chosen because every other ref had a history with these teams and refused to be there, I was determined to not let the game get out of hand. In the first ten seconds there were fisticuffs so I took the captains aside and told them I was tossing the two miscreants and that I would call the game if more of this occurred.

    In Rugby the ref is God. His word is final and neither coaches or players not the captain can discuss the calls. Personally I think all games should be this way, but that is a ref speaking, mainly because players and coaches don’t have a very good grasp of the rules until you reach the highest levels and then they just try to find the edges.

    The upshot of the game was that I was thanked for a good job by both teams and they finally got to play the game as it should be played. (I relented and let them play 15 men aside, by the way.)

  46. 46
    Tom says:

    Kudos,Richard. Not only are you knowledgeable about insurance, but also a student of the beautiful game.

  47. 47
    Trollhattan says:

    @El Kabong:

    Did this make the news/internet anywhere? I’d like to know more.

    Sorry I didn’t see this earlier. In case you’re still around, it’s downloadable from the above link.

  48. 48
    Jim C says:

    Thanks for posting this, Richard. I came way too late to participate, but it both a very enlightening post and a very interesting discussion.

    I hope I catch the next one.

  49. 49
    Nathanael says:

    Intentional body checking is outright prohibited by the rules of soccer last I checked.

    Do you read the rulebook before acting as a referee?

    Maybe you had a different regional, or historical, variant of the rulebook. I see your comment earlier that refereeing standards have changed over time. :-( Soccer used to be a highly non-contact sport.

  50. 50
    Shields says:

    @Nathanael: You should check harder. Charging is only illegal when done “carelessly, recklessly, or with excessive force.”

    By the way, it’s the “Laws of the Game,” not the “rulebook.” And they are “laws,” not “rules.” This probably explains why you’re so ignorant on the matter at hand.

  51. 51
    nonya says:

    @mikeyes: That is because Rugby has a history with the upper and upper middle classes, soccer has a history of being a sport of the lower classes, and it shows both here in America and abroad.

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