Sunday, June 18, 2006

Part-Time Lovers: Football And Its Match Officials

Pilot. Dentist. Clerk. Maritime inspector. Engineer. PR Manager. Teacher. These are some of the day-jobs held by the 23 men serving as referees at the 2006 World Cup.

For most of its history, soccer – like American football – has avoided the professional referee. The approach reflects tradition, thriftiness, and the nature of the schedule: weekly matches leave time for weekday activities, where the schedules of leagues such as the NHL, MLB and NBA fill all but the off-season.

The football leagues are playing with fire. There are compelling reasons to believe that favouritism and corruption are endemic among soccer's match officials.

It’s not the fault of the officials. Pay is often so low – referees in the Football League earn £210 per match, with no retainer – that a bribe or wager can offer a compelling incentive.

In the past few years, major match-fixing scandals have emerged in Germany, Italy and the Netherlands. Second-division referee Robert Hoyzer (left) is currently serving a 29-month sentence for his role in the German scheme, which may have extended the influence of Croatian organized crime beyond the domestic league to UEFA matches.

Professionals are not immune from corruption; but properly compensated professionals have a compelling incentive to retain their positions and act with integrity.

£33,000 buys 35 seconds
Favouritism is a more subtle challenge – and one that afflicts the ethical and unethical alike. A long history of literature documents subtle biases in favour of the home team – an effect thought to stem from the psychological influence of the crowd on the officials. But both the effect and its possible causes are difficult to identify and quantify.

In 2001, however, an extraordinary opportunity arose: the top 24 officials in the English Premier League were put on annual retainers of £33,000 plus £900 per match (a maximum of 38), required to spend several days each month on training and development, and subjected to performance monitoring.

The change brought their compensation closer to MLB’s 68 umpires (who earn $100-300,000), the NHL’s referees ($90-225,000 with extra money for working more than 70 games or in the playoffs) and NBA officials ($77-224,000). NFL officials, whose junior members earned at little as $1,000 per game as recently as the 1990s, struck in 2001 to bring their income up to a $40-120,000 range.

Suddenly, Premier League officials had compelling reasons to be self-aware and avoid favouritism: their financial interest and personal status were at stake; there was a real opportunity cost for making poor decisions.

Two economists at the University of Surrey – Neil Rickman and Robert Witt – saw an opportunity to test whether the new incentives would reduce a classic form of referee favouritism: the amount of injury time awarded in close matches.

According to their paper, studies of Spanish, German, Italian and US soccer leagues have replicated a finding that “referees add more injury time when the home team is behind in a close game than when it is ahead in a close game (as opposed to those where the scores are too far apart for additional injury time to make a difference).”

Studies have also found a preference for awarding penalty kicks to the home side, and videotape has demonstrated the impact of crowd noise on decision-making.

For Rickman and Witt, the question was whether the newly-minted professional referees would officiate differently than the weekenders left-behind under the old system (the control group), or differently than they had the year prior.

The results should surprise no one: second-half injury time in close games fell by roughly 35 seconds compared to the First Division.
“We find that referees exercised favouritism prior to professionalism but not afterwards, having controlled for selection and soccer-wide effects…The results are consistent with a financial incentive effect as a result of professional referees and indicate that subtle aspects of principal-agent relationships (such as favouritism) are amenable to contractual influence...Our results are therefore important in indicating that principals may control their agents by appropriate and, in some sense, intuitive means.”
The results will be what they are
Over four weeks this summer, the pilots, dentists and clerks officiating for FIFA will earn $40,000 (US) for their work – double the fee paid in the Korea/Japan tournament.

It’s hard-won: 46 candidates were brought together 16 months ago for the first of several officiating workshops. They were then placed “under constant supervision…observed during domestic and international matches.”

In February 2006, the final 23 were summoned; contestants not appearing on stage received $20,000 for their efforts.

Angel Maria Villar, Chairman of the Referees’ Committee, is confident the process has produced men of integrity. “I believe in sports men. Perhaps I am putting my hand on a hot iron here but I am certain they will act honestly and transparently. We are certain the results will be what they are. We are utterly convinced of their integrity and this is why they are here.”

It’s not integrity that will prevent favouritism and corruption: it’s being paid and treated as professionals. The combination of a rigorous selection process (scrutiny and feedback) with a significant financial incentive ($40,000), and the elevated risk/consequence of making a mistake or fixing a match in front of 1 billion prying eyes, are what really matter.

FIFA seems to get the message when it comes to the big show. But it still shows an extraordinarily lax approach to qualification. Referees for international matches receive just a $250 per diem for their service, despite the high-stakes involved in qualification, the millions wagered with bookmakers, and the often hostile match environments.

If domestic and international soccer leagues are serious about stamping-out corruption and curbing favouritism, there is one, and only one solution: hire, train and manage professional referees.


At 7:41 AM, Blogger Andy Grabia said...

Great post, which I finally got around to reading Tuesday morning. Interestingly, I learned this morning that the reason there are two sets of two games being played at the exact same time today, instead of having four single games played at differing times, is because FIFA wants to avoid any posibility of tampering. With so many of the group placements still to be determine, it is a wise decision. This way, all the teams have to go for it, and there can be no possibility of another game's outcome affecting a referee's decision.


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