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.