How Would YOU Solve British American Football’s Referee Shortage?

As part of  the collaboration between American Football International and Great Britain’s premiere American football site, Double Coverage, AFI presents a fascinating article from Double Coverage on a refereeing dilemma that affects teams and clubs not only in Great Britain, but in many other parts of Europe and the world. Read through to the end and feel free to offer your ideas on how to resolve the issue of a lack of referees.
Officiating is a crucial part of any sport, but this summer there’s been a growing dissatisfaction across the community due to the number of fixtures that are being left without qualified officials – leading to games either being postponed, covered by stand-ins, or potentially falling off the slate altogether.

In this short article series we’re going to start with looking first at the problem the British game faces, and then follow this up by discussing some of the potential solutions, including those suggested by YOU, the British American Football Community!

Britballs’ Zebra Shortage – Part One: The Problem

It’s often a fairly thankless task – berated by players and coaches alike for three solid hours to make the ‘right’ call (which is, of course, whichever call benefits them the most 😉 ) but the reality is that the men and women in zebra stripes play an essential role in the British game – providing knowledge, experience, enhanced player safety, and ultimately greater legitimacy to the sport as a whole.

However, so far in this summer we’ve seen at least two Adult League fixtures postponed due to a lack of officials, as well as numerous Under 17 and Under 19s tournaments and fixtures left without qualified officials, forced to compromise with stand-in coaches taking on the officiating roles.

This past winter, the University league – which is now the largest format of the game in the UK in terms of number of teams (and thus number of fixtures) – struggled with a lack of officials almost every week, and similarly National League associate teams have expressed frustration in the difficulty of attaining officials to cover the associate fixtures they’re required to complete in order to earn league status.

With teams and coaches across the community expressing frustration at games having to be postponed or left wanting, earlier this month the Gateshead Senators took a stand, sharing a statement on their Facebook page that noted the club would no longer be participating in any U17 or U19 fixtures that were not covered by qualified officials:

The Senators are far from alone in their frustration. Coaches and Team Managers across the league have expressed their disappointment with the limits British Officiating is experiencing when it comes to covering games.

“It’s a tough issue because I’m completely aware of and appreciate the challenges involved for BAFRA. I know, as with many roles across our sport, that the BAFRA operations team do a thankless job and try their very best to ensure every fixture is covered but that isn’t always possible.

This is especially true in Scotland where there are currently only eight active officials to provide coverage to seven adult teams, two junior teams, three youth teams and now three associate teams trying to gain entry. Not to mention university and women’s football!

That understanding doesn’t remove the sheer frustration though – it can often feel like U17 and U19 are the ones to miss out on coverage, specifically for games and tournaments further afield or not linked to a ‘double header’ with a senior team.”

– Amanda McDonald, Chairman, East Kilbride Pirates

As with any sport, referees are rarely going to be fan favourites – it’s easy to criticise the calls that are (and aren’t) made each Sunday, and as such officiating is a vocation that requires thick skin. There’s a lot of respect for those who step up and perform a tough and often thankless task – so it’s important to qualify that it’s not the quality of officiating that’s been the cause of backlash recently.

Rather, British American Football has some of the most respected officials outside the US, and have officiated World and European Championships, including the World Bowl back in the NFL Europe days. The big issue Britball is facing, however, concerns the quantity.

So, there’s just not enough refs?

Well, the short answer would be yes. Certainly, limited numbers of officials is the foremost factor to consider here – though there are a number of other key considerations, such as scheduling and geographical dispersion, that also need to be taken into account. We’ll look at these further in Part Two, when exploring potential solutions.

Officiating in British American Football is run by BAFRA – the British American Football Referees Association, who’ve overseen officiating in the UK since they were established in 1984. To learn more about the situation, we reached out to the Association for comment, as well as any stats they may be able to share regarding Referee numbers and coverage of fixtures across the community.

Disappointingly, BAFRA President Davie Parsons said the association were unable to provide any current or historical data regarding referee numbers or disposition, however, he noted “suffice to say we face the same challenges presented to most officiating organisations around recruitment and retention.”.

Photography (c)

Even without concrete data, however, it’s clear to observers of the British game that the number of officials in the sport has struggled to keep pace with the growing number of teams, and thus the ever-increasing number of fixtures in need of coverage from one weekend to the next. The reality is that Britball is experiencing growth at the moment, and that’s great… but BAFRA’s growth simply isn’t keeping up.

With the announcement of the new BAFA Board, and the hopes that British American Football might be on a cusp of a new renaissance of growth within the UK, the problem may be about to only become more substantial if participation levels were to grow significantly, without a similar rise in the number of officials.

There are many that argue that too often those with the greatest need and most to gain from having access to qualified BAFRA officials, are the first to be neglected – all too often it’s the Under 17’s and Under 19’s games that are left zebra-less.

“The priority of all of us in this sport should be making sure the future of the game get to play this sport in a safe, fun environment.

Without refs at a tournament the officiating responsibility falls to coaches. I don’t feel like I, or any other coach, can both officiate on the field, while at the same time providing adequate attention to our own players. Their safety and development as an athlete are both our priority as coaches, but also the responsibility parents are trusting us with. ”

– Coach Adam Walkin, Gateshead Senators Academy

So what’s the solution?

Well, that’s where YOU come in!

We’ve already received a number of suggestions and possible solutions from some key stakeholders, and picked up yet more ideas from online discussions between coaches, players and fans of the game, but we want to hear more thoughts from across the community about how Britball can look to remedy this situation and try ensure full official-coverage of the British game in the future?

We’d love to know your thoughts, so either comment on the Facebook post for this article, in the comments down below, or contact us directly – either via or at [email protected]

In part two, we’ll look to collate all your suggestions and discuss their merits and practicality, and hopefully together come up with some cracking potential solutions our sports institutions can look to implement goings forwards!

Double Coverage is about everything #Britball. Through news and community support we seek to grow British American Football through enhanced media coverage.