A policy analysis question

Later on today, I’m meeting up with two referees to go to Middle of Nowhere State College for a soccer game tonight. One of my colleagues is a public policy post-doc at the local policy school and the other is a business prof focusing on economic development issues. I work with this crew once or twice a year and it is usually the geekiest and most enjoyable drives of the season.

The policy geek is always look for good teaching examples and I think we have a good one to sketch out tonight.

Over the past couple of years, the local high school soccer association and high school leagues have made a variety of changes to expectations and rules. Here are some of the changes in practice and expectations.

1) When there is a sub-varsity/varsity doubleheader the start time moved from the traditional 6:00/7:30 or 6:30/8:00 split to a uniform 5:30/7:00pm. —-Referees are expected to be at the field at least 30 minutes before kick-off.
2) All referees must renew their clearances annually even though state law allows for three years of validity for educators.
3) 12 hours of in-season training (on nights when college or high amateur leagues play) instead of the previous 6 off-season hours and four in-season hours that were better scheduled to avoid conflicts. Most of the pre-season hours could be satisfied by either a college or USSF intermediate clinic.
4) New uniforms that are unique to the high school game and can not be used for USSF or NCAA games (previously we used USSF shirts, shorts and three striped socks)
5) Formal assessments were discontinued. Now the play-off pool is determined by a combination of seniority (length in the chapter) and three season average varsity game count.

Pay has not changed since 2008.

The local high school referee group had 190 members in it for the 2015 playing season. That broke down to roughly 30 people whose highest level games were either professional or scholarship college, another 20 refs whose highest level games were D-3 college, ethnic mens’ amateurs or Regional USSF youth ball and 140 refs whose highest level games were either low level State Cup or high school depending on how they were being assigned. I was uncomfortable working with about ten refs as they found ways to screw games up in old and uncreative ways. Last year, we sent 24 referees to the state playoff system, twenty one of them had as their highest level game either a professional match or a scholarship game.

Using basic policy analysis skills can we make any predictions about the impact of these policy changes?

The short version is the 2016 referee group has 123 referees signed up including half a dozen rookies and a dozen people whose age plus weight is north of 350. I left this year. There are now four people whose highest level game this year is either a professional or a college scholarship match. Nine of the ten refs that I don’t like working with are still doing high school. The other retired and moved out of the region.

Is this surprising?


The policy analysis problem starts at looking at a cost benefit analysis. Before these rule and practice changes, the equilibrium of supply and demand led to 190 referees being willing to do high school games at the going rate. That going rate compensated referees for their time to get to and from games, it compensated referees for their skill, it compensated referees for the time to attend training, it compensated referees for their clearances and it compensated referees for the pain in the ass nature of high school ball’s fans and parents.

However we got a brand new set of costs imposed on refereeing. Any one of them might have been shrugged off with incremental attrition. All of these changes led to mass attrition. The move to a 5:30 kick-off means that quite a few fields that I could just get there in time for a 6:00pm game would require me and many others to leave work early, take time off or really lean on favors/goodwill to get there for 5:00pm instead of 5:30pm.

The annual clearance renewal just increases the cost of clearances from an average of $35/year to $105/yr.

The annual training put on by high school has always been bad as it is always Ref 101 as there is a steady flow of new refs and refs who have been working the game for twenty first years in a row. However the old system allowed most of the training to be done when there were few competing demands of time. The previous in-season training requirements meant I gave up two evenings with my family which was painful by the end of October as I had barely seen them, but I was not given up paid work to attend. The new requirements have a cost of six evenings with my family and the opportunity cost of taking on paid work for either college or amateur ball.

New uniforms are another $100 a year for a short sleeve and long sleeve plus more laundry coordination and finding space in my big bag of crap.

Finally the play-off reward system now rewards individuals who have been around forever and only do high school games. There is a reason why individuals who have been around forever and are not doing college or professional games are not doing those games.

So using basic cost benefit analysis, the bundled costs are now above the reservation price for a lot of referees.

Can we make any other predictions?

The distribution of the quits is predictable. 90% of the people who had clearly superior options left. The opportunity cost of doing high school was increasing as it meant either less family time (which is extremely valuable during the Fall season) or giving up better paid work. The choice was fairly low cost for the people with better and higher paying options. The next cohort of people who did either D-3 or Regional USSF ball as their highest level games saw 60% attrition. After that, it was a steady but fairly low level of attrition as the people who left either were the ones who had only been doing one or two games a week and the early start times conflicted with work or people who had life happen to them.

There is now a significant high school referee shortage.

The immediate policy response has been a steady stream of e-mails begging referees to come back (all is forgiven but no requirements are changed). The other impact is the referee group has told its remaining members that no games will be allowed to be turned back or additional blocks in availability granted (this should do wonders for retention next year).

The in-season impact will be a lot of referees will be on games that they really should not be on which means a lot more red cards and a lot more players getting hurt from preventable situations. The long term impact is the high school group really needs to rethink their economic model, but they won’t until they are under 100 referees next year.

22 replies
  1. 1
    Nunca El Jefe says:

    This strikes me as similar to the outcomes you described in an earlier post, with the high school kids that were given a baby doll to care for. The irony in this situation assumes good intent on the part of the rules committee in enacting the changes; I can’t speak to what that group is like. This was, perhaps, more predictable. Thanks for the post, it’s nice to discover how interested I am in these kinds of policy outcome examples.

  2. 2

    @Nunca El Jefe: I think if these changes were run by the referees they would have gotten good feedback that there were serious problems that would lead to drops. Personally speaking the training requirement change and the move from either a 6:00 or 6:30 start to a uniform 5:30 start were the biggest drivers for me to leave high school as in-season family time is rare and very valuable if I was doing high school, college and USSF. Now doing just college and USSF, I’m home at least two nights during the week and half days on both days on the weekend.

    I know where and understand where the rules committee(s) are coming from and they were trying to do their best for the players and the game but they did not think the situation through.

    And if pay had increased significantly, quite a few people would probably find a way to make it work, but the pay has not moved upwards since 2008 (some schools/leagues have dropped pay multiple times since then).

  3. 3
    daveNYC says:

    The start time is probably the biggest actual practical impact, but from the outside, the new uniform requirement would be what would really grind my gears. That does absolutely nothing but waste money on something that is utterly pointless, though probably gives the idiot who thought of it the warm fuzzies.

    The removal of the formal assessment is going to have carry-on impacts, since anyone who is looking to get serious about reffing is probably going to really want that feedback and the ability to use the assessments as a way to try and move up the reffing ladder (or whatever). Though I’m making some assumptions that there’s anything remotely like a soccer ref career path one can take.

    What’s amusing is that on the one hand, you need to renew your qualifications every year, but on the other, they’re not going to use your actual assessed on-field performance to determine what gigs you get. Which looks like they decided to save money by ditching the assessments, and then try and cover for that by forcing the refs to pony up cash each year to get re-certed.

    Is your local high school soccer association as stupid as the above changes make it seem?

  4. 4
    I'mNotSureWhoIWantToBeYet says:

    It sounds like the new rules/fees/etc. were drawn up by B-School grads. There are never any costs to things they want to do – just benefits. “Hey, we need some more moneys, let’s charge the refs more.”, etc.

    Or maybe they went to the Gingrich-School of Everything. “If we can make grade-schoolers do janitorial work for their free lunches, let’s make them ref their soccer games, also too! Who needs to pay adults for this stuff – anyone can do it, amirite?!?”


    No solutions from me, but I’m constantly amazed that systems that are built up over decades and work pretty well are somehow “obviously” bad/inefficient/too expensive so they must be trashed because some know-nothing reactionary has the power to do so. Maybe the old system is the way it is because it is fairly close to optimum (given all the constraints).

    I’m sorry you’re caught up in it there, too.

    Good luck.


  5. 5
    Schlemazel says:

    This sounds a lot like modern business practice. Push costs & cutbacks on the workers & what can you expect? That the people with better options will leave and what remains is inferior.

    Second: Our daughter played high school sports including ice hockey. Refs for hockey have gotten much worse since I was a kid and noticeably worse than when our oldest played. The ‘highlight’ was the guy the players called “Drunken Duncan”, he smelled of booze & was fairly over weight. They has a couple of refs who could not skate well enough to keep up with the play. I think it is a combination of the costs associated, including time, and the lacl of respect shown.

  6. 6
    laura says:

    I can’t even . . .
    The policy changes appear to squeeze out anyone who has normal constraints and obligations, leaving a pool of refs that are single, not dependent on working for a living, with a desire to expand their wardrobe for variety or to escape the ho hum sameness of an easily recognized and respected rule enforcing body (ie, refs).
    I can’t think of anyone with the possible exception of Paris Hilton who fits that bill. But I question her commitment to the sport.

    And to fix it after the fact by begging, not revisiting the policy. Yeesh. Dumb compounding dumb.

  7. 7
    RSA says:

    @I’mNotSureWhoIWantToBeYet: To me the policy changes seem to have the flavor of school administration thinking, at least from what I’ve heard from my friends who are teachers and substitute teachers. If the follow-on email messages hint that referees should come back because they’re really doing it for the kids, well…

  8. 8

    @RSA: Yep, we’ve gotten those e-mails — the KIDS need you to play for without referees, it is recess…

    And the LOVE OF THE GAME!

    @laura: The policy changes target a referee pool that is either retired and available for anything or teachers who can reliably get out for early games

  9. 9
    RSR says:

    @RSA: I was going to say a similar thing. As the spouse of a 25 year public school teacher, this all looks so very familiar.

    And sadly, it’s both b-school and school admin thinking. Because we’re ‘fixing’ public ed by running it like a (shitty) business: competition–for buildings, between staff, between public and charters, etc; calling students and parents ‘customers’; treating the employees who actually do the work of the business like a commodity who should prostrate themselves before the altar of you’re lucky to get what we’re offering/”oh, the children” rather than treating them like skilled and crucial parts of the system.

  10. 10
    Feathers says:

    I worked for an engineering firm where we called crap like this “design by vice president.” Some higher up has a bunch of “good ideas.” What is truly sad is that often the VP wouldn’t want the changes to go forward if they knew the actual costs, but the underlings are so afraid of “saying no” that even the most obvious ramifications aren’t brought up.

  11. 11
    cmorenc says:

    FORTUNATELY, here in the Triangle region of central N.C. we have what is perhaps an unusually high quality high school soccer refereeing environment – our assignor Mark Kadlecik (who is also in charge of training) is himself a USSF-National who was an MLS referee for awhile and still works the next Pro level down (you can find his profile on the US Pro referee site – look under MLS 4th officials). This is a soccer-rich area with lots of high-level club soccer feeding the high school teams, a relative abundance of decent soccer refereeing talent, and the pay’s not bad either: $61 each equally for all 3 members of a varsity crew, $56 equally for 2 members of a JV crew, and $50 each for a middle-school game. We can wear our USSF jerseys to do HS games, and at least half have all five colors in their kit and everyone beyond their initial season has at least three.

    Mark’s clinical training every season involves some game management issues, presented via video clips from pro, college, or high school games with interactive feedback discussions – the clinical rules concentration this season is the new offside interpretation, with weekly video clips for us to analyze and respond to via email. IMHO Richard, you’d like the referee environment (both on club, college, and high school sides) were you here in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area of North Carolina.

  12. 12
    Wyrm1 says:

    Yep, this is completely recognizable to any public school teacher. For me this year I have had the following added to my plate.

    2.5 hours of in school professional development per week
    Change of our on-line grading system after week 2 of the year.
    Required coverage of absent teachers classes (possibly without pay, we will see)
    Increase from 5 to 6 classes being taught.

    The net result of all of those changes is that most of the teachers who have the ability to look for either better teaching jobs or other jobs are very much looking to leave. The ones who aren’t looking are really invested in the community or have no other options.

    Every change is given to us with “this is for the kids” and if we disagree then “we don’t care about the kids”. There is no recognition that we are human beings with lives, and quite frankly most of these changes (as well as ridiculously early start times for athletics) are actually hurting the kids.

    My district is at the point where they are having trouble recruiting teachers, and seem completely oblivious to why that might be. It’s strange to me because teachers will put up with a TON of stupid garbage if they are treated with a modicum of respect, but my district can’t even manage to do that, let alone investigate what might inspire good teachers to stay.

  13. 13

    @cmorenc: My region is odd. The USSF and NISOA communities are great. We have FIFA’s, we have active PRO referees, we have former FIFAs and plenty of nationals who are involved at all levels of the game. Last spring I was showing up for a 10:00AM Regional League U-16 game at a field complex. As I was getting briefed by my center, I looked at the next field and there was a FIFA AR running a line on a U-9 travel game (she was there mentoring two new refs). The college group is great, we have experience, we have internal and external respect. We work nicely together.

    The high school universe is a fiasco. It is led by the high schools and their AD’s who are all football guys and think in football terms. Any other sport is insignificant. And of course high school football is the pinnacle of youth development for the sport, so of course, by definition high school refs are the best and have nothing to learn from any of source. And as the people who work other systems get out, that attitude is going to get worse.

  14. 14
    Earl says:

    There’s a funny parallel with silicon valley. The companies out here endlessly whine about the difficulty in recruiting engineers. The only problem is most won’t pay more than $150k, which I imagine sounds great to most of the country, but it made news in the little city I live in when there was a house (all of 900 square feet!) available for under one million dollars. And it had termite damage and immediately needed $100k of work. So if you want to make a life out here, you plus SO had better figure out a way to make north of $300k or you will be barely surviving. Teachers are in a similar boat; a friend of mine teaches and he actually works at a gym 5 days a week after class in order to get his gross pay to $85k.

    But there’s an engineering shortage, and we can’t recruit teachers! Weird, eh?

    As a friend of mine is married to a teacher and forced her to quit last year and get a higher paying job under threat of divorce. She now works as an executive assistant with a $25k pay raise and better hours. He basically said he was tired of subsidizing her volunteering and she had to start contributing more to expenses…

  15. 15
    Gavin says:

    What are the new policies intended to achieve?

    And if there is no answer, why make changes that negatively impact safety of the kids?

    The changes to the situation of teachers…. are usually with the intended endgame of charter schools getting their fists into the public tax trough. “See, those teachers can’t get it done, time to let the SERIOUS people do it right!”

    I have no idea what the analog is for non-football HS referees….

  16. 16

    @Gavin: Good question — what are the goals of the policy changes:

    1) 5:30/7:00 the goal is earlier start times which leads to earlier end times. Educational objective is to get the teenagers home by 10:00 (80 minutes of playing time on the clock, 5-10 minutes of dead clock time, 10 minute half time, 20 minutes to get on the bus, 30 minutes riding the bus, 10 minutes for dispersal at school). that gives a 30 minute cushion for weather/overtime/traffic/long bus rides etc. This actually makes some sense. Financial objective is to minimize overtime/hours as the athletic trainers/security/janitor would have started their shift as school was getting out, so this lets the lights shut down earlier.

    2) Renewing child abuse clearances yearly versus the allowed every three years that teachers do — The best reasoning I heard is someone is thinking about running for office and wants a campaign ad. S/he was able to steamroll the rest of a league board to approve annual re-certification out of a deference of caution urged by their counsel. Once that league went annual, s/he marched to all of the regional boards and said that League X does this, so should you, think about the children and the headlines if a ref ever did anything to a player…. And they agreed.

    Non-cynical reason, a lawyer got scared.

    3) high school officiating in general for soccer is mediocre at best in my region and some nights really bad. Extra training would be a good thing. The objective of moving everything in season would be to allow for further discussion of weekly highlights/lowlights for improvement. That makes some sense. The issue is the high school groups don’t recognize knowledge/expertise outside of the high school world, so previously acceptable clinics put on by either USSF or NISOA are no longer recognized.

    Honestly, if I wanted to improve refereeing in high school , I would stretch the season out a couple more weeks, hold constant the number of games a team can play. That decreases the number of games per week and per night and then institute a mandatory run test where everyone passes but assignments are keyed on results.

    4) New Uniforms — they look spiffy/bring us into conformity with other high school referees in other sports/allow re-use of uniforms for the guys/gals who officiate other high school sports.

    5) I have no clue why formal assessment/evaluation got dropped.

  17. 17
    Victor Matheson says:

    Here in New England, there are so many colleges, ranging from barely playing recognizable soccer to regularly challenging for NCAA titles, that I haven’t done a NFHS game in 12 years. I already have as many college games as I can possibly do, so why would I choose to take a cut in pay in order to work with less capable referees and less skilled and less disciplined players. Count one former USSF National/MLS guy out of high school soccer.

    Of course, USSF is not innocent here either. They are moving on to their 3rd uniform style in 8 years. Changing uniforms every year makes sense if you are a pro club or a national team trying maximize profits by making fans continually refresh their fan-wear. If you are a supposedly service organization like the referee department of USSF, changing uniforms is a disgrace. All a new set of jerseys does is to make the $500 worth of existing jerseys in my closet obsolete. Multiply this over 100,000 referees nationwide and you are talking about a decision that pisses away well over $10 million worth of perfectly usable jerseys for no reason. And it makes referee crews look like crap for the next 3 or 4 years as some referees change and others continue to use their old jerseys. Of course, the people making this stupid decision aren’t affected by this since they are either retired from active officiating or will get complementary jerseys from OSI at various USSF functions. This is either plain stupidity or petty corruption, but neither of those reasons reflects well on the USSF National referee committee.

  18. 18

    @Victor Matheson: Yep, tomorrow’s game is between two JUCOs that play a soccer like game. Tonight’s game should actually be a pretty decent.

    I did high school before I got into college. When I was out of work several years back, refereeing was my fall back so I had a sixty day stretch with at least a game a day and I have been slowly working my way down from there. Agree that there are very few good high school games. My USSF assignors give me about a 15% stinker rate, my NCAA assignors give me about a 10% stinker rate. High school gives me a 50% stinker rate. It just is not fun and increasingly not profitable.

    Yep, USSF changes uniforms too frequently. If I was in charge, I would find a color that no team would ever want to wear and make that the standard referee uniform. MLS can do their own thing but for 99.9% of USSF sanctioned games Baby Puke with Merconium stripes should be distinctive enough.

  19. 19
    Victor Matheson says:

    @Richard Mayhew: 4) New Uniforms — they look spiffy/bring us into conformity with other high school referees in other sports/allow re-use of uniforms for the guys/gals who officiate other high school sports.

    There are a handful of people who are such good people managers that they can referee essentially any sport simply through their personality, but typically I find multi-sport referees never learn enough about the specific intricacies of soccer (or lacrosse, or basketball, or field hockey, etc.) to ever get very good at each of the individual sports. Doesn’t make much difference on an easy jv game, but I am increasingly wary of the guys who do one or two different sports each season as the level of play in the soccer game I am doing rises.

  20. 20
    cmorenc says:

    @Richard Mayhew:

    The high school universe is a fiasco. It is led by the high schools and their AD’s who are all football guys and think in football terms.

    Be grateful, VERY grateful that they aren’t basketball people, who incorrectly carry an analogy in their heads that soccer is akin to basketball-on-grass using feet instead of hands. That’s exactly where the horrible idea of a three-whistle soccer refereeing system sprang from – it was for a time adopted in North Carolina, pushed by a key NCHSAA officer who is a basketball person to address the perceived problems of inadequate refereeing of some high school soccer games (the actual cause for which the at-the-time prevalence of some assignors assigning refs according to their “good old boy” connections as a stand-in for actual levels of fitness, skill, and judgment – you hit the nail on the head referencing the age + weight quotient.) When I’m assigned to work with previously unfamiliar refs e.g. at some tournament, I can pretty quickly figure out which ones are multi-sport refs from whom soccer isn’t their primary orientation, especially if they do lots of basketball – too quick a whistle, and too reflexively automatic black-letter in their sense of foul recognition/rules violations.

  21. 21

    @cmorenc: baseball umps are the worst on a soccer field. No player management that does not involve a card

  22. 22
    Victor Matheson says:

    It is also important to note that while we have all criticized the old, out-of-shape officials, it is really hard to get good, young ones, presumably in any sport. Last spring I scheduled the spring scrimmages here at Holy Cross. These are D1 college games but don’t really count for anything, so I thought it might be a good chance to try some of the younger college officials out and give them their first chances to blow the whistle for a D1 match.

    The pay isn’t great, so I limited myself to local refs. But when I went through the roster of 30 or so nearby referees on the NISOA list, I was very nearly the youngest guy on the list… at 46.

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