IUPUI Sports Innovation Institute tackles referee shortage

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The Sports Innovation Institute works with several teams and organizations, including the Colts, Indians, Pacers, Fever and NCAA. Image provided by IUPUI Sports Innovation Institute

There's a growing problem in youth sports, and it's one that threatens to eliminate competition for children across the United States. It has nothing to do with health, equipment or facilities, but officials. There simply aren't enough, and the games won't be able to go on if things don't change.

A significant percentage of officials are closing in on retirement, and younger officials are quitting at alarming rates. It's threatening the sustainability of youth and amateur sports.

The IUPUI Sports Innovation Institute is working to change the trend.

"This topic has become a primary area of focus for the SII, starting with the senior capstone class in fall 2019," said David Pierce, director of the Sports Innovation Institute.

Each year, the host school of the NCAA Division I men's basketball Final Four has its programs highlighted by the NCAA NextGen program. This year, IUPUI has invited all NCAA member schools to participate, as teams will attempt to find solutions to enhance the recruitment and retention of sports officials. It's the first innovation challenge of its kind, and Pierce hopes it will spark fresh ideas to combat the problem.

Twenty-five schools signed up to participate; each team will pitch its solution to a panel of sports innovators, entrepreneurs, officials and sports business experts. The process is over a month long, with pitches due March 19 and a winner announced April 5.

Colin Fierek, a senior sports management major, serves as the NCAA NextGen Program Coordinator intern with fieldXperience. His job required him to recruit member schools and their students to participate, and he will also be responsible for bringing the Innovation Challenge to life at the NextGen Summit.

"After getting the internship, I was tasked with familiarizing myself with the challenge and the problem it was trying to solve," Fierek said. "I had no clue the shortage of officials in youth sports was as bad as it is until I started digging deeper."

The shortage has been a growing problem for years, as Title IX legislation in 1972 led to a boom in girls athletics and cable television introduced niche sports to a wider audience. Since then, parents have invested heavily in travel sports, and there has been an explosion of technology, software and platforms to improve training, coaching, administration and performance.

Lagging behind, though, is any sort of innovation for officials. In 2018, there were over 100 million youth sports competitions, but there simply aren't enough officials to keep up. It threatens to disrupt the entire youth sports ecosystem and limit the opportunities children have to compete.

"The goal of the innovation challenge is to create more awareness about the shortage of officials," Pierce said. "We want the teams to present new, fresh ideas to key stakeholders in the sports industry."

The teams will submit a 300-word check-in pitch March 5 to ensure they are on the right track and then submit a five-minute video pitch of their idea March 19. Based on those materials, judges will score each team's performance.

The judges will look at a variety of things in each pitch, including how well the team explains the problem, overall creativity, how feasible the solution is, the impact the idea will have on sports officiating and how the team chooses to spend its hypothetical $250,000 to invest in the problem.

Four finalists will be announced March 26 who will then make a three-minute video pitch that will be aired live April 5 at the virtual NCAA NextGen Innovation Summit. During that event, audience members will have the opportunity to cast their vote for their favorite idea. Two winners will be announced -- one for the audience-choice award and one for the top team as rated by the judges.

"There are no organized sports without refereeing," Fierek said. "As the younger generations look to more technological hobbies, there has been a drastic decline in those looking to become referees. Dr. Pierce had a quote that stuck with me when I started working on the Innovation Challenge. He said, 'Without refs, it's just recess.'"

To learn more about the Innovation Challenge, visit the NCAA NextGen Innovation Summit online.

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