Olympic Ambition: Why Avoiding Referees Might Be The Ticket

There are a lot of moving parts to WFDF’s international push to get Flying Disc sports into the Olympics. I happen to see this work as perhaps the most important in ultimate at this time, along with the burgeoning television contract between USA Ultimate and ESPN.

The economics of sport in today’s world is driven by and large by a single factor: broadcast deals. If you can get on TV, you can make it. Of course, there are exceptions (remember the XFL?) but EVERY successful sports league has one thing in common: mass media exposure.

That’s why a particular comment on today’s story about the latest out of the WFDF camp stood out to me as wise:

[quote]While I see a split from fans and players on the self officiated vs. observers vs. refs debate nearly all of what I read and hear from top executives (people directly in charge of the sale and purchase of the sport) has been largely in support of non reffed games.

Having played in self officiated, observed and reffed games. I am not so positive that reffed games are inevitable. Often the best way to be break through into an established industry is not to conform but disrupt the industry with something unique.[/quote]

WFDF President Nob Rauch, USA Ultimate CEO Tom Crawford, and all of the other most important decision makers in the sport are consistent about one thing: Spirit of the Game and the self-officiation component of the sport are extremely powerful marketing tools. The IOC loves them. ESPN loves them. Other sports are jealous of them.

Let me be clear, I think that a third party official (whether an observer or a referee) is necessary at the highest levels of the sport. The game too often breaks down without one, as we saw so starkly at the World Games and the U23 World Championships (both WFDF events, where observers are not used).

But I am increasingly finding myself falling into the observer camp, especially after watching a full season of professional ultimate in the two different leagues. The referees added little to the flow of the game and too often detracted with inconsistent or blown calls.

While I don’t subscribe to the belief that referees will doom ultimate and destroy its culture and values, I do think that there really is something powerful about calling your own game. There’s a reason that the most powerful sports organizations in the world — the IOC and ESPN are right up there — are intrigued by it.

I have found that there is a huge difference between playing with observers and without them. But is there such a wide gap between observed and reffed ultimate? I don’t think so, and, even if there is added value for some players, I certainly don’t think it’s enough to drop what these massive sports entities find interesting about the game.

Getting into the Olympics or making it onto one of ESPN’s televised networks would mean an exponential increase in the sport’s broadcast audience. That would lead directly to more players, more sponsorships, and all of the benefits that come along with that.

The leaders of the pro leagues might want to consider what ultimate’s most powerful executives already see: self-officiation could be the sport’s golden goose. (My sense is that they already recognize this, considering how much they highlight when players invoke their Spirit rules).

The current observer system isn’t perfect (they need some more power) but it elegantly solves the problem of poor calls and long delays while preserving a self-called game. Whether you’re an IOC official sitting in a board room or a newly introduced fan sitting on a couch, that’s compelling stuff.

  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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