October 5th, 2021
Ref Union extends our congratulations to Open Gym Premier on their 10-year anniversary. To Matt, Miguel, Max, Nick, Julio, and their enormous new class of tournament managers, executive officers, and site directors, we thank you for your continued support.
It's crazy to think how many different characters we've met and all the stories and experiences we got to enjoy in a decade of servicing OGP events. I could probably ramble for hours about such matters ⏤ and may one day write something of far greater depth ⏤ but today I just wanted to give a brief retrospective on our relationship with Open Gym Premier, how it started, why it endures, and why I appreciate it so very much.
In 2010, I was introduced to Open Gym's founder, Matt Kanne, at the Starbucks by Anaheim's Angel Stadium. He talked about this grand vision of an immersive and all-encompassing youth basketball program that would change the way we think about grassroots sports. I remember that it felt like he was pitching a screenplay; but before he even had a script, or actors, a set, or any studio backing, he was telling me how "in the future" he would need someone that could provide the referees. As with every new client ⏤ which was EVERY client for us back then ⏤ I absorbed his proposal with equal parts hope and skepticism. Was I really supposed to believe that a couple of 20-something-year-olds were going to make any serious dent on such an archaic politicized cesspool? Dare to dream, I guess.
Well, Open Gym Premier proved that my skepticism was unwarranted. Matt and his group really did launch themselves into being a major influencer on West Coast basketball and they continue expanding every year. I was just in the right place at the right time and knew the right random person (Jacob Sudek) that got me in on the ground floor of this incredible project.
I have no qualms in admitting that Open Gym put us (Ref Union) on the map.I certainly cannot imagine Ref Union being as influential as we are now without the work that Open Gym provided. What started out as a few rinky-dink tournaments that barely took up four courts, eventually OGP began launching events of nearly 1,000 games in a single weekend and left us in charge of staffing it all. We were essentially forced to grow just to keep up with them. As the adage proclaims: "whoever has the gold makes the rules." Thanks to Open Gym Premier, Ref Union soon held the most grassroots work opportunities of any basketball assignor in Orange County. It is what elevated our brand to Southern California prominence.
Of course, our tenure with OGP has not been without its ups and downs. We endured the occasional squabble just like any couple in a long-term relationship. Honestly, that is what I appreciate about Open Gym the most. The sports industry is fickle. One wrong move and people look for a scapegoat, break off relationships, and would rather start over than work together. I have always been a controversial and loud-mouthed figure. Over the years I have offended everybody from other assignors to other club program presidents, many of whom had relationships with Open Gym Premier and didn’t take too kindly that one of their "vendors" used such disparaging verbiage against them. On multiple occasions, OGP would have been justified in cutting their ties with me in favor of a more neutral (i.e. quiet) assignor who would just put his head down, do his job, assign referees, and not rock the boat.
And yet, they stuck with me.
Moreover, they allowed me to be myself. They let me assign the games my way. They let me (within reason) to stick it to unruly parents and abusive coaches, in a manner that bothers most other sports programs because after all, "those parents are the customers!" Furthermore OGP has always recognized our autonomy and never made us feel subservient to their program. Open Gym Premier is our client, not our "boss," a distinction that safe to say, most other programs do not understand. Most assignors are just the lap dogs of the clubs they assign. I never felt that way with Open Gym Premier.
Part of getting to enjoy this free rein is by virtue of our quality, but a major part of it is also Open Gym’s incredible sense of loyalty and the fact that their program is rooted in idealism — therefore they respect and recognize our own. OGP set out to change the culture of youth sports; Ref Union set out to change the culture of grassroots officiating. Two grand visions dependent on one another for success, which we've both been fortunate to enjoy.
While we cannot raise a “Mission Accomplished” banner just yet, we can stand together after 10 years and look back on all of the progress we’ve made. Much of it is discernible, just looking at the scope and volume of Open Gym’s events. Far more of it is intangible but even more important, such as our impact on sports culture and the lives of so many players that have crossed through the Sports Center doors. I can comfortably say that grassroots basketball is better now, a decade later, because of programs like Open Gym Premier. It is far more organized and civil. The groundwork is set for the next 10+ years, and should I be so fortunate, I look forward to working with OGP to make their events the best grassroots basketball experience in the country.
For the players and the refs.