To fans and coaches, they are known as public enemy number one, yet without them a game or match would not happen.
Keene State College Athletic Director John Ratliff classifies officiating as “a thankless job.” According to Ratliff, KSC athletic teams get their officials from different groups depending on the sport. He stated, “The ECAC [Eastern College Athletic Conference] handles both men’s and women’s soccer and basketball teams and they handle softball.”
All the other sports get their officials from different organizations, however. Ratliff said volleyball, field hockey, baseball and women’s and men’s lacrosse are all handled by separate organizations.
Ratliff called it a bit of an issue, ”because you’re dealing with so many different groups for assigning.” He said conference commissioners are getting together to figure out a way that assigning officiating crews could be done in a more efficient manner. “It’s not really efficient because we are dealing with so many organizations,” he said.
The difference between Division III versus Division I and Division II, is that they have their own officials where they have an assigner who is paid by the conference, according to Ratliff. “At Division III we are just not at that level where we can do that,” Ratliff continued, “Commissioners are trying to get together and say, ‘You know what, for the fee we are paying maybe we can pay that to a different group and sort of have everything under one umbrella,’ but that is probably a couple of years away.”
Each assigner is their own entity, therefore coaches in the conference are able to evaluate the officials and tell the athletic directors which assigning organization they would like to use. “The coaches as a whole in the conference make a recommendation of who to use, but then the athletic directors as a whole vote,” Ratliff said.
After the athletic directors vote, the conference uses that assigning organization for the sport. That is done so different schools do not use different assigners, Ratliff said. “We don’t want two or three different schools using a separate assigner,” Ratliff said.
According to Ratliff, that does happen in field hockey. “There is a different assigner within the different schools because there isn’t one group,” Ratliff said. Currently, field hockey has a group handle Northern New England and a group that handles Southern New England.
Volleyball is one of the sports that has an assigner, or separate entity. According to head coach Bob Weiner, the Little East Conference uses officials out of the Boston area. Weiner said the officials are certified and there is a process they go through after learning the rules. “They have to take a test and be observed,” Weiner said.
Weiner has coached at a variety of levels, including Division I at Iona College, and said the officials used do a good job. He added, “The officials are the same ones when Iona played Fairfield,” referencing back to his Division I coaching days where he has seen these officials when the Owls have had matches in Connecticut.
As for the officials at KSC, most of them referee the college level exclusively, Ratliff said. The ECAC has an evaluation system for their officials. “The ECAC does a really good job with ref evaluations from coaches. Usually, those ones who are all ranked low, they’ll get rid of them and they won’t come back and officiate anymore,” Ratliff said.
The College Baseball Umpires Assigning Organization is what KSC baseball uses. Ken Howe, who used to umpire, said “They are the best umpires available,” from his experience about his training.
“There is an NCAA rules test which is probably the hardest test I’ve take in my life,” Howe said. An umpire has to pass that written test and then has to pass a field test when they work a double-header doing a game behind the plate and at the bases, Howe said.
“A current umpire is there watching, doing an evaluation on mechanics and how you handle situations,” Howe said. “It is a pretty vigorous screening process.”
Howe also has a chance to evaluate the officials. He said there is a one to five scale on the evaluation form.
Howe, like Ratliff, noted a problem with the system. “If you give a four out of five that’s only eighty percent,” Howe said. This means an umpire would only be correct 80 percent of the time with their calls. Howe said that is one part of the system he would like changed.
“It’s not good, I keep trying to tell them [CBUAO],” Howe said.
One thing that works against the quality of officiating is that the good ones move on, Ratliff said. “We’ll get some really good officials, sometimes the really good ones will move up and then every now and then you’ll see them back at our games when they don’t have a Division I or Division II game going on,” Ratliff said.
A die-hard KSC athletics fan might notice the same officials at a lot of games or matches.
“They try to make sure you don’t see an official more than three times a year, so a lot of them have a thing that you limit the number you see,” Ratliff said.
“I don’t think I have seen [an official] more than four times, but I couldn’t tell you if we saw them on the road too,” Ratliff said.
Another aspect of the evaluations and scheduling is that a coach can request not to have a certain official. “They can blackball an official a little bit as far as to the assigner they can try to turn down officials,” Ratliff said.
According to Ratliff, run-ins with officials on an ongoing basis used to create problems. However, a coach cannot go through the referee list and say that he or she wants to see certain officials, Ratliff said. They can make officiating requests, but there is no guarantee that the request will be approved, Ratliff said.
KSC spends on average $55,000 to $65,000 a year on officials. The figure does not include postseason. He added, “They charge the same thing for postseason.”
The cost per sport varies. Men’s Lacrosse is the most expensive, costing between $600 to $700 a game.
Ratliff said, “I would say it averages $450 to $750 dollars depending on the sport. Volleyball would be a little less. They’re probably about $400 dollars.” In addition, officials get gas coverage as well. “You pay them to do the game and then they get mileage for driving back and forth,” Ratliff said.
According to Ratliff, the schools and the home team pays for the officials. “Our officiating costs are ridiculous,” Ratliff said.
Ratliff hopes for officiating consolation moving forward.
“I would love to see everybody under one umbrella, it would be great. You are dealing with so many assigners it would be nice to have some consistency,” Ratliff said.
“Overall, I think our officials aren’t bad. Every now and then you get some bad ones, but then you get some really good ones, too,” Ratliff said.
Brian Clemmenson can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org