PROventing new fans

by Colin Peterson

I’ve got my fair share of problems with the Professional Referee Organization, aka PRO. They are the “independent” organization in charge of all officiating for all professional soccer between Canada and the US. Meaning, they are responsible for the North American Soccer League, the United Soccer League, the Canadian Soccer Association (who knew that existed?), the National Women’s Soccer League, the United States Soccer Federation, the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, and of course our very own Major League Soccer. They are the iron fist of officiating. Also, screw them.

I have tried to keep in mind here that no one necessarily likes their referees. Every fan in every sport is convinced that their referees are the worst, and that they’ve been paid off to give an advantage to the other team. Everyone is convinced that they know better than the ones being paid to officiate. I get it, I really do. But can we say that, after all we have seen from PRO, that they are in any position to be considered good?  We’ve seen countless cases with them, almost each and every game, where we can point to a call that was or wasn’t made in a crucial position which had a major impact. Be it a soft yellow card on a player, a foul, a penalty kick call, or anything in between going one way or another, PRO has been failing to make the correct decisions.

The fact that the Video Assistant Referee, or VAR, had to be introduced in the first place I interpret more as an admission of guilt rather than the opportunity to make the calls more accurate. VAR has four game-changing situations where it can step in; goals, penalty kicks, straight red cards*, and cases of mistaken identity. Meaning, it can override what happens on the field, but in practicality, it’s only there to confirm or deny calls which lead to major impacts on the game. What constitutes a “game-changing” situation then? For example, during the San Jose away game, Marlon Hairston was brought down in San Jose’s half due to a jersey pull. The video replay on TV showed an indisputable foul that wasn’t called, instead it was ignored by the referees. If the right call would have been made, who is to say that we wouldn’t have connected that free kick to a goal? I mean, it’s the Rapids, and they probably would have ended up not making it, but bear with me here. It was a case where VAR could have stepped in, made the right call, and could have changed the result of the game. But, PRO gives VAR limited authority.  It is still up to PRO to make the right calls.

I have taken it as a personal challenge to try to introduce people to soccer. Oftentimes, people just don’t grow up with it, or grow up where the word football means the Broncos, and that’s all they know. But when I go finally get someone to go see their first professional soccer game, a recurring thing happens. They get horribly confused by the calls that the refs make, or fail to make. Even their unfamiliarity with the rules of MLS don’t prevent them from seeing the mistakes being made in the officiating on the field.

Think about that for a minute. People who are unfamiliar with the sport can still make better calls than the professional referees.

But there is another underlying issue here. When these people new to the sport get to go to a game, the refereeing is making them change their mind about going to another one. A few weeks back, I loaned by tickets to the Vancouver game to a friend, as I was in Omaha attending a wedding. My friend brought his dad, a dedicated sports fan who watches football, hockey, golf, and even a little bit of baseball and basketball. He has seen a grand total of one game of soccer on TV, namely the women’s world cup against Japan.  He played a year of soccer in high school, but has never been to a professional soccer game. With the Vancouver game being essentially his first professional soccer game, I asked what he thought about the game. The short version of his response was “The product on the field was fun to watch. The issue was the refs. They were hideous. The flopping aspect was a result of refs condoning the behavior.” After one game, the referees made him not want to see another.

Everyone makes fun of soccer for the flopping. People don’t understand that the flopping is about trying to get a call made which can change the game a lot of times, but players unquestionably flop. And someone seeing the Rapids play for the first time understood what the issue was. It isn’t just that the players were trying to get the calls made, it was that PRO was allowing the flops to occur and were doing nothing to prevent more. They are having a non-zero effect on the fans wanting to go to the game. When newbies to the sport can find calls that should have been made but aren’t, or calls that shouldn’t have happened in the first place, then PRO has failed. We need more oversight, more training, and more importantly, more disciplinary action for poor refereeing. The quality is preventing more fans, and the way things are going, the Rapids can’t afford to lose any new customers.


* I interpreted this to mean when a player is given a red cart, and not a second yellow card resulting in a red card. But, I couldn’t find any confirmation on this one way or another.

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