WFDF’s Worlds Discussion About Observers & Referees

The logo of the World Flying Disc Federation.At July’s 2012 Worlds Ultimate and Guts Championships in Sakai, Japan, the World Flying Disc Federation (WFDF) held a Congress over the course of two days to discuss various issues confronting the global ultimate community.

One of the topics of discussion was titled, “Observers, Referees, and the AUDL: Is it Ultimate without the Spirit of the Game?” Clearly a hot topic this year, WFDF has already made their stance clear in an interview with Ultiworld: no observers, no referees.

Robert Rauch, WFDF’s President, said, “I like having a World Championship without referees and making the claim that it is the defining feature of our sport is our best branding opportunity…It really is a core element of what makes Ultimate as great as it is.”

Newly released minutes (pdf) from the Worlds Congress shed more light on exactly what the sport’s top organizers are thinking about the self-officiation v. observers v. referees debate. Here’s a summary of what was presented at the Congress.

Rauch presented data from the WFDF Member Association survey that showed that while “close to half of WFDF members agreed that the introduction of AUDL is good for Ultimate; more than 60% appeared to prefer that AUDL remain true to the existing rules of Ultimate. More than 3/4ths of respondents agree that Ultimate is not Ultimate without Spirit of the Game, and that being self-officiated is a great branding opportunity for Ultimate.”

Although many argue for retaining self-officiation for purist reasons, Rauch pointed out that Ultimate’s founders at Columbia High School “fully expected that referees would be used if Ultimate took off.”

The original rules read: “A referee or referees may officiate, and, if so, their decision must be final. If no referee is available, the two teams play on an honor system, settling disputes by flipping a coin or by some other such method.”

According to the book ULTIMATE–The First Four Decades, the Colombia High students didn’t have access to a referee when they played late at night in the parking lot, so they called their own game.

Those at the Congress were then given comments from Josh Moore, the President of the AUDL. They read:

[quote]By shifting Ultimate to a professional level geared towards the spectator, the AUDL implemented some changes to how the sport has been traditionally played. The biggest change is the use of officials to make the calls, rather than the players. This has allowed players to focus on playing and eliminating the element of player disagreements around calls that often times slow down the sport. Sportsmanship and integrity are still an integral part of the sport, as the AUDL implemented an integrity rule to help foster the continuation of the spirit of the game. The integrity rule allows a player to overturn an official’s call if it will be to the benefit of their opponent.

[There is] sportsmanship that can happen beyond spirit of the game. With officials you cut out the debate between players and eliminate a lot of the downtime and arguments. This in turn allows the players to focus on playing and in our opinion improves sportsmanship overall. We also have the integrity rule which allows players to overturn an official’s call if it’s in the other team’s favor. This allows the players some level of control similar to spirit of the game and we hope sportsmanship in general will be higher than the sport has experienced previously.[/quote]

Tom Crawford, CEO of USA Ultimate, then discussed the benefits of Ultimate games played with observers. He stressed that USAU is committed to Spirit of the Game, one of the goals in USAU’s new six year strategic plan. Crawford said that that “the Observer system is a major tool for achieving SOTG and for ensuring that the game is spectator-friendly and appropriate for television.”

In the strategic plan released yesterday, USAU focused on wanting to make SOTG “real” for today’s players. But coming up with a good definition has proved difficult. The USA Ultimate Board spent two days trying to clarify SOTG but could never settle on the language.

Simon Hill of UK Ultimate spoke on behalf of the WFDF SOTG Committee which “firmly believes that disc sports should be self-referreed for practical reasons,” pointing to the difficulty of finding people to become observers or referees. He suggested that “making the interactions between the players public (mike them up) can and should be a key piece for marketing/broadcasting.”

Rauch then asked the most important question of all: are we seeing a shift in ultimate from being player oriented to spectator oriented?

Crawford said that “USAU wants to stay focused on the player, but also focus a lot more on the fans as well,” which they plan to do with “a focus on exposure through broadcast mediums and new sponsors.” That “exposure component will include a Club regular season with mandatory competitive events for the top teams throughout the summer that USA Ultimate hopes to broadcast nationally.” We will know more about this soon when USAU releases their Club restructuring plans.

Crawford stressed that USAU does not want referees, but has “confidence in the ability of observers to play a significant role in the preservation and growth of self-officiating and [preservation of] SOTG.”

  1. Charlie Eisenhood
    Charlie Eisenhood

    Charlie Eisenhood is the editor-in-chief of Ultiworld. You can reach him by email (charlie@ultiworld.com) or on Twitter (@ceisenhood).

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