Written by Rick Matthews
The IUPUI Sports Innovation Institute provided me the opportunity to dig deep into the world of sports officiating through my capstone class, internship, and a research project. What I received was a truly transformational experience that helped me look at problems in a brand-new light, and something I will take with me throughout my professional career.
The focus of my academic work the past 18 months has been on sports officials, particularly how they are treated by fans, parents, players, and assigners. Their performance takes a back seat when you begin to see the verbal and sometimes even physical abuse that are directed at them for just trying to make a living or stay engaged with their community. Because of this, we are facing a critical lack of sports officials, and I fear that the problem is not going to get better unless people who care about athletics actively try to change the culture around it.
This discussion began for me during my senior Capstone class. The challenge was simple. The solutions? Not so much. If it were easy, refs would be turned down at the door because there was not enough room for them in the league, athletes would see the occupation as a viable career path after their glory days had passed, and I wouldn’t be writing this.
Throughout our class, the concept that was hammered home to us with us was all about “human-centered design,” which in short involves empathizing with the people to identify problems and solving them in bold and creative ways. Too many times we think we know the problem before we try and fix it or approach it too close-mindedly by looking at whatever data that has been collected has to say, but human centered design engages an individual’s unique experiences and creative thinking to construct the best possible product.
Our class interviewed dozens of people and my group and I went to work. We learned during the interview process that empathy and understanding was the biggest complaint among sports officials. It wasn’t pay, inconsistent hours, accessibility, or fear of ruining a game like some may think, but they just wanted others to know they were doing their best.
Our solution was to create a product that allowed users to “become the ref” by putting them in a virtual learning environment where they were then forced to make a call from the referee’s perspective. One market we wanted to reach was youth sports leagues where parents would engage in the experience before the season. We prototyped a version of this software that we nicknamed “RefPOV” where we used some existing footage of plays captured with small cameras mounted on the hats of the refs and we let people from around the Indianapolis sports scene test our product. (You can read more about the class initiatives here.)
While I am incredibly proud of RefPOV, it may not be ready for market yet. But, our presentation caught the eye of Brenda Hilton, who is the founder and CEO of a start-up out of the Chicago area called Officially Human. Officially Human’s goal was the same as ours, to improve the fan to referee interaction in sports. While we did not work on specifically fleshing out RefPOV, she saw that we were incredibly knowledgeable on the sports officiating scene and offered us a chance to work with her last summer to help build out a curriculum that aimed to deliver educational content to fans and parents at youth sports events. That was an offer I knew I couldn’t refuse.
Throughout the summer on my internship, we helped create the product for Officially Human. I was overjoyed that we were able to create a tangible product that was ready to be marketed and easily implemented today. And it all happened as an undergrad! Today, that curriculum will be rolled out through the Officially Human and fieldXperience partnership that was announced last September, and I am beyond excited to see the impact that it will have in the youth sports landscape very soon.
Building on this experience, Dr. Pierce presented another opportunity to further my knowledge on a research project with J.D. Collins at the NCAA. Alongside Maddie McConnell, an undergrad who was also in the Sports Management program, we tackled another sports officiating issue through the power of human-centered design. We interviewed conference officiating coordinators to understand their thoughts on the current structure of assigning officials to lay a foundation for refinements to the existing infrastructure.
When I started doing projects with the SII, I would have never dreamed that I would have had all of these experiences by the time I turned 22, and I don’t know of many other places that would have given us these opportunities. The IUPUI Sports Management program and the Sports Innovation Institute have led me to seamlessly engage with industry professionals who are genuinely interested in our ideas and have helped support me in some truly great projects to create tangible changes within the industry. I will continue to utilize human-centered design in my professional life, and I will continue to look for and support the ongoing fight for better environments for sports officiating.