Photo Credit: Bill Nichols

Sports officials and microphones have a long history. In fact, one of the earliest instances involved Major League Baseball in 1929.

On Aug. 25 of that year, the New York Giants introduced a public address system with a contraption for the umpire to announce balls and strikes, according to Peter Morris in “A Game of Inches.”

Umpire Charles “Cy” Rigler had a mask equipped with a microphone connected by wires to metal soles fastened to his shoes. To make an announcement, he would step on a copper plate behind the batter’s box. The plates were connected by wires to the PA system, and stepping on them closed the electrical connection and enabled Rigler to announce balls, strikes and foul balls. He also announced the pitcher and catcher before the game.

The “umplifier,” as one New York newspaper called it, didn’t catch on. But by the 1940s, public address systems had become commonplace with announcers detailing the game’s activities. Umpires haven’t returned to announcing duties, but explanations of calls have become commonplace in other professional sports leagues, such as the NFL and NHL.

The desire for not only explanations of calls, but glimpses at the entire officiating process, has opened a trend toward the broadcasting of previously private officiating conversations.

And with literally dozens of professional cameras covering each major college and pro game, not to mention thousands of other cell phone cameras all capturing their own images, almost everybody gets his or her own view of things.

The explanation of certain calls has become part of sports. Depending upon the sport and in what part of the globe you’re residing, that may mean a full public description replete with great detail, or nothing more than a set of hand signals that doesn’t always fill all the information gaps.

International Scene

On the more informational side of the sporting world is Australian League Football. Officials are mic’d up all the time and a firm named Sports Ears sells an $80 device that will allow fans in attendance to hear all three field umpires’ microphones, the goal umpires and the score-review official during a video decision.

In the world of international rugby, which sometimes occupies late-night time slots on U.S. cable sports networks, the entire dialogue between the officials and the players becomes part of the broadcast — an amazing level of access granted to fans of the sport.

An explanation of this philosophy came in the 2015 profile of English Rugby Football Union official Nigel Owens in the Financial Times, where he stated that a more open use of microphones has led to more accountability and fewer problems. The lead of the story goes like this: “The rugby referee enjoys a level of respect denied to his football (soccer) counterpart. He is spared flash-mobbing by angry players and (is) often addressed as ‘Sir.’

“Yet this role still brings closer scrutiny than it once did. This is partly because microphones make the comments of referees audible on television broadcasts and bring their personalities to the fore.”

Owens, who has more international experience than almost any other rugby referee, has other advantages that he employs, including the humor and quick wit that are his trademarks in his day jobs as a stand-up comedian and TV broadcaster.

“A quick comeback to a player who is moaning about something can often defuse tension,” he said in the profile, adding that he picks his moments for such one-liners carefully, so as to not escalate the situation.

Is rugby a bellweather for the future of other sports? Some U.S. sports are certainly dipping their proverbial toes into those waters.

Announcing Calls

The NFL got out front on the referees-and-microphones concept a long time ago, introducing wireless microphones to its officials in 1975 as fans in the stands and watching on television got a first-hand explanation of calls. Those presentations put the referees in the spotlight and helped build the reputations of Red Cashion, Jerry Markbreit and Ed Hochuli.

The mic’d-up NFL referee is such a ubiquitous feature of the game that it even entered popular culture with the famous and funny State Farm Insurance TV ad featuring the phrase, “Your mic is on.” Officials have been caught occasionally with the switch still on when not intended, allowing some salty language to spill out from time to time.

In fact, Markbreit was so obsessed with not letting that happen that he would practice turning on and off his microphone by flipping an imaginary switch on his belt where his power pack would be during a game.

He would do this while at work, doing chores and exercising. His wife eventually teased him about it, telling him, “Jerry, you don’t have to flip on your microphone to take out the garbage.”

In short, even with the occasional open mics, the concept is seen as a good thing by the NFL and is not going away anytime soon.

“We’ve had them in one form or another for about 35-40 years and it’s amazing how helpful it’s been,” said recently retired NFL referee Jeff Triplette. “It really helps us get the information out and keep the game moving.”

In NCAA football, however, guidelines for the use of microphones are cut and dried. It’s stated clearly in rule 1-4-13  that it is “mandatory” for the referee to use a microphone for all game announcements with a lapel-style microphone being strongly recommended.

The microphone is to be controlled by the referee. It is not to be used for anything other than game announcements and must be closed at all other times.

No other officials are allowed to wear microphones except in the case of a protected wireless system open only to the officiating crew and a conference officiating observer.

Bill Carollo, a retired Super Bowl referee and current coordinator of football officials for the Big Ten, Mid-American and Missouri Valley conferences, is a big fan of onfield communication systems for officials.

“Everyone is wired-in and communicating; it just makes the game more efficient,” he said. “You throw the flag, you switch the button on (for the system) and then everyone (in your crew) is listening. You explain what the flag is for and you don’t have to run across the field. You get the decision made right quickly and you don’t have to make a big demonstration.

“You get the game moving along and it improves game administration so much. It just saves so much time. It’s a quicker conversation. It also helps on replay as the replay official in the booth can call down and say, ‘There’s a problem’ and you can fix it right away.”

But the overall view is that football is an emotional game with fast, high-intensity changes of momentum. And referees, like in other sports, need to maintain respect and control, so the idea of an open mic on officials all game long is just not feasible anytime soon.

Other major sports perform similar balancing acts with their officials.

After losing the 2004-05 season due to a collective bargaining impasse with the players, the NHL introduced a series of endeavors to try to win back fans. One of those was putting microphones on its officials to explain penalty calls. It has since evolved to include goal reviews and other tight plays and has become very popular. It has enhanced the game, said NHL Senior Vice President and Director of Officiating Stephen Walkom.

“I think the fans really appreciate it,” Walkom said. “They like getting the information on the goal reviews and penalties. Sometimes it gets a little duplicated by the PA announcer, but we’ve worked out a lot of the kinks.”

He said the league’s officials like the process, though there are individual variations. Not everyone is as effusive as referee Wes MacCauley, who has had a few of his high-octane calls go viral on social media.

“A lot of our guys grew up playing hockey and then went into refereeing,” Walkom said. “They do some amazing things but they are all a little different. Some can be a little emotional (when announcing calls) and that can be good or bad depending on the call. But on judgment plays, we want the official to make the announcement. It’s just good for everyone.”

The interplay between NHL players, coaches and officials on the ice is also very frank and a bit profane at times (that’s the culture of hockey), so you’re not likely to have the officials skate all game long with open mics anytime soon. Walkom said the thought is to not influence play and not have the players feel their game strategy could be heard through an official’s microphone.

“They (the fans) all want as much (audio) as our guys can provide, but we don’t want to confuse them,” Walkom added. “Sometimes less is more and sometimes it’s good to have access with the fans. It’s taken some time to get used to all the change and it’s not always easy.

“I know they really sell the information (the chatter between players and officials) in other sports, but I don’t think we’re ready to do that in our game. I’m not sure all the players are ready either. We don’t want to change player behavior.

“We play a fast game on ice with sticks with a lot of emotion to it. We don’t want to hinder the players’ ability to communicate (with each other).”

Replay Pressures

Replay has added a level of pressure for explanations. There may be a groundswell brewing in certain English soccer leagues to allow officials to explain certain calls. Take for instance the case of an English FA Cup contest in January, where video showed one player on a breakaway apparently being clipped by another in the penalty area, resulting in a penalty kick. After a review by the video assistant, the call was overturned with no explanation by the match officials. The information vacuum left people upset and led to a comment by Chris Sutton for The Daily Mail: “All the furor from Wednesday night’s FA Cup replay could have been avoided had the referee and video assistant been able to communicate their decisions with the supporters.

“At the moment, it is all cloak and dagger. Football (soccer) should take the lead from rugby where the officials have a microphone and viewers can understand what has happened. We may disagree with the decision, but at least we won’t be left in the dark.”

FIFA pledged for the 2018 World Cup in Russia to provide a written explanation of calls that could be provided to both broadcasters and shown on the giant video screens within the stadiums.

But the idea of more open and frank discussion between players, coaches and officials is not a universally loved concept in the soccer world.

About six years ago, the Premier League in England started recording and storing heated conversations between officials and players. They are used to help out in disciplinary hearings and training and are not made public.

But as far as the actual use of microphones by soccer referees for open explanation of key calls, that hasn’t happened yet in many leagues. In a recent Sky Sports informal polling of top English football (soccer) officials Dermot Gallagher, Neale Barry and Mike Riley, the verdict was, “Never gonna happen!”

Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL)  General Manager Riley gave a rational explanation for this opinion.

“I’m not too keen,” he said, “and the reason being is there are many conversations on the football field that are actually really constructive in terms of helping the players engage the referees and vice-versa. Were you to make those conversations public, it might impact that relationship on the pitch.” PGMOL is the English officials association that works most of the upper tier professional soccer leagues in the UK.

Across the “pond” in America, baseball is also split on how much information its officials should share.

Baseball Access

In 2013, in part of a process that had been going on a few years, ESPN worked with Little League Baseball to have Wisconsin-based home plate umpire Sam King mic’d up for a regional final in Indianapolis. The idea has proven to be very popular.

“At first it was a little intimidating,” King said, “but then you start doing your normal things. You get into the game and then you stop worrying about it. You just try to find your sweet spot (of when to say something and when to not).”

In that situation, ESPN worked with the umpires and turned off the mics when the crew had to go into a conference to discuss a close play. The broadcast announcers let everyone know they were giving the umpires privacy at that moment. After the conference was ended, the microphone was turned back on and King was able to explain the call to coaches and other game officials.

Over the last four years, the NCAA College World Series has struck a highly innovative arrangement with its broadcast partners giving fans, players, coaches and umpires nearly all-access, reasonably unfiltered audio of the games.

For example, ESPN used 117 microphones at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha for the 2015 series, including some on the umpires.

At the time, ESPN Sound Engineer Steve Kaura explained the relationship for mic’ing up the College World Series this way: “The NCAA trusts us,” he said.

And the trust to find that audio sweet spot for the series is a two-way street, according to NCAA D-I National Coordinator of Umpires George Drouches.

Drouches said there are some controls on what can be heard from the umpires, but for the most part, the moment-to-moment repartee that goes on can be heard by the average fan.

Umpire conferences on tough calls are usually not broadcast live, but in certain instances, permission has been obtained to run the conference after the decision has been made, giving the public an unprecedented glimpse into those usually private huddles among officials.

In contrast, many MLB umpires will cover their mouths with their hands or even their mask as they talk among themselves so as just like the players, not to have their lips read.

Though the microphones are used only at the College World Series and not at other levels of the NCAA postseason, there are advantages to having all that audio recorded, added Drouches.

“It’s a wonderful teaching tool,” he said. “We use the clips from the World Series in training and in clinics. It’s a positive for all levels of umpires. Still, in the pregame meetings I warn our people to be careful in what you say, especially between innings, especially on close calls.

“And, you just have to be aware that the downside is that everyone can hear what you say, when you say it.

“But overall, there is more upside than downside. There are some provocative moments, true, but it enhances the fan experience and it really enhances college baseball as a whole.”

King said there was a great level of trust when he was mic’d up for that Little League regional game as he worked closely with someone in the production truck as to what would be broadcast and what wouldn’t.

He found the whole experience enjoyable.

“I would do it again easily,” he said.

Any arrangement to bring microphones to MLB would likely be the subject of protracted negotiations between management and the umpires association. MLB and the umpires are in the middle of a five-year labor deal and neither side is likely to unsettle the other on such an issue unless it absolutely has to.

In spring 2017 there were news reports that umpires might be soon using microphones to explain replay calls, but a year later not much has happened in that regard. And in a recent email exchange with Referee, MLB Vice President of Communications Michael Teevan didn’t indicate any developments.

“The practice of in-park replay announcements by the umpires is a subject that would need to be agreed upon between MLB and the World Umpires Association,” he said. “Issues like training and timing are among those that would have to be considered.

“Generally speaking, we are always open to evaluating potential upgrades to our system, and we have not ruled out future discussion.”

The desire for further explanations, particularly of replay decisions, will put pressure on the system for change. Television’s desire for more access won’t go away either.

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