Referee 2.0: Upgrading The Umpires Of The Future

A rugby union referee wearing ‘ref cam’. Pic: Getty

Technology has changed how spectators view sport.

The steady advances in technology have been bringing the crowd ever closer to the action.

The ability of umpires in many sports to refer decisions to high-tech camera equipment is the most obvious – and has added a new layer of excitement and crowd participation in sport.

Think of the anticipation surrounding a slow-motion replay of the grounding of a ball in rugby, or waiting to see how Hawkeye tracked a ball’s flight in tennis or cricket.

Two decades ago players at Wimbledon were screaming at umpires over phantom puffs of chalk. These days, it’s just a matter of referring the play to the highly sensitive cameras that track all the activity on the field of play with increasing detail and precision.

There are many who believe the technological advances are taking some of the romance from the sport, but the march of technology – recent Ashes disputes over “Hotspot” aside – is helping sporting codes everywhere ensure that the result of a game is an accurate reflection of athlete’s activity — and never spoiled by an unfortunately-timed blink of an official’s eye.

Super Rugby this year saw the introduction of the “ref-cam”, a piece of headgear that allows the crowd to see the referee’s point of view in High Definition, with audio.

It is especially powerful at scrum-time, where the referee’s position at the mark is unquestionably the best place to see what’s happening at impact. Here are some highlights:

With technological enhancements for umpires of all sporting codes on this impossible trajectory, we spoke to SANZAR Rugby Referee Manager Lyndon Bray about some of the potential innovations to come.

Right now the ideas are only speculative. But Bray told Business Insider it could be possible in the near future for spectators to see a live heart rate monitor, projected alongside the footage of play on-screen.

This would give viewers an idea of how hard the referees were working.

Another exciting possibility — already being used in sports such as NFL — would be an explanation of decisions broadcast onto in-ground screens and televisions, which would explain to viewers why a ref has made a call they might find contentious.

Also on the cards is a visualisation of GPS data, which could plot the movements of referees, to give spectators an idea of where they have been running, and how they are tracking the players, Bray said.

Technology does not only make broadcasts more interesting. It can also be used as a coaching and analysis tool for referees, which has a big impact on their accuracy and performance, in turn making sport more enjoyable.

“It has a really favourable impact on the game itself,” Bray said.

“They [refs] can analyse teams and how they play at different phases of the game.”

SANZAR refs can access all game footage, anywhere they are in the world, via a web-based program, Bray said.

This helps them review their own performance, in the same way a player would, to pick up on the mistakes they made.

The introduction of better in-game communication equipment, which lets officials talk live to their own colleagues while they are on the field, has also lifted the quality of rugby refereeing.

This year, football’s English Premier League will use a simple but unique technology involving sending a text message to a referee’s watch saying “goal” to solve disputes over whether the ball has fully crossed the line.

Perhaps it’s not hugely high-tech, but it shows yet again how technology is a friend of sport.

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