July 30, 2022
Written by: Chris Balasinski
Like any traditional union spokesman, every so often I get into my officials’ business. I know it's a bad habit and I’ve been scolded multiple times about “looking into other people’s pockets,” but I feel that is part of the duty of a union rep. We have to look out for each other and hold each other accountable towards working together for greater common prosperity.
Recently an official and I were talking about our weekends and he admitted to working a few games that by all measures grossly underpaid him for his services. He worked a summer tournament featuring a full stop-clock format and varsity-level play for $30. That’s at least $10 less than local market rate and certainly doesn’t further our goal to push those rates into the 40’s.
“I know,” he said, “but times are tough."
We were talking over the phone so he couldn’t see my dubious expression. It made me think: I know that most referees are incredibly short-sighted but do we also suffer from short-term memory?
"Times are tough!?" Since when?
Then again I guess the “times” are relatively subjective. Or like experimental medication, your individual results may vary. Maybe your times are tough but that is certainly an important distinction. Because for all intents and purposes, as a whole, times are most certainly not tough. Times are actually pretty damn awesome.
I’d like to remind you guys of when times were actually tough. It was back between 2008 and 2013 when I was still a novice assignor getting my feet wet in the murky waters of grassroots basketball. Economists called that cheerful period “The Great Recession.” I was able to obtain a few major accounts just before we bore the true brunt of the economic downturn. Just in time too; it seemed like every other day I was fielding phone calls from a referee who had lost their job and needed more games just to pay the rent. The labor market was cold — measured unemployment was around 10% while true unemployment and underemployment rates were substantially higher. Those were tough times.
Officially the Great Recession subsided around 2009 or 2010, but for much of the labor market, the effects lasted much longer. For most blue-collar workers, things didn't really improve until post-COVID and I would put ourselves (referees) into that unfortunate category. The Great Recession was used as an excuse to keep many of our wages low and stagnant for years to come. Every time we tried to negotiate an increase to our game fee, tournament directors, league operators, and middlemen assignors would stammer and point out that their budgets were still recovering from the recession and that they couldn't afford to pay us more money. It was all horseshit of course. They were raking in money hand over fist with tournament registrations and gate fees rising every year. Nevertheless, referees lapped up their excuses and simply got used to consistently low wages.
A few years passed and despite the death and misery it left in its wake, COVID-19 renewed the courage of the American worker. After a year-long time-out, workers regrouped and realized that we were done being deceived, abused, and underpaid at our jobs. We gained a fresh perspective on life, realized that chasing those minuscule dollars was beneath our dignity all along. The "Great Resignation" began, perpetuating an exodus from the ranks of officiating that was foretold many years prior.
This left us (the labor class) with exceedingly good times compared to the era before. We hold all of the high cards right now and we have all of the leverage. It is the employers, the business owners, the tournament directors, and league runners sweating it out to find the manpower necessary to keep their businesses and events running. Wages everywhere are going up and every worker, from the Amazon Warehouse to the Starbucks barista, are feeling empowered to demand more money for their time and labor.
Referees, unfortunately, were the among last to join the party. Our invitation was sent out along with all the others, but many of us were too ⏤ for lack of a better term ⏤ stupid to check the mail. After over a year off, we were so desperate to lace up our sneakers that we didn't look twice at the pathetic game fees being offered. That's the price we pay for being basketball junkies ⏤ most referees absolutely love this game, we love doing what we do, and that makes us ripe for exploitation.
Nevertheless progress has been made. Speaking for Southern California, sub-$25 game fees are virtually gone. Even under the darkest of crawl spaces, where the scummiest of assignors would lure referees like Pennywise with a big red balloon, they had to raise their rates for the first time in a decade. Most running-clock games are now scratching at $30. On average, we have seen 12-15% boosts to our annual officiating income.
More good news: Unemployment is at 3.8%. Available jobs are north of five million. The only drawback to this economic revitalization: inflation is kicking our ass. Fortunately, as independent contractors, we should (theoretically) have pricing power and be able to simply raise the price on our services to absorb inflation's effect upon us. That's what all other businesses are doing and they are enjoying record profits.* These times could be good if we take advantage of them.
A tournament administrator once told me that demand for youth tournaments is not “inelastic.” I, however, could not disagree more. I think more people would rather start skipping meals than stop playing in club tournaments or adult leagues. The proof is in the pudding: tournaments are selling out and the only thing stopping more basketball from happening is available staff and gym space. We can raise our prices to whatever we need to counter inflation and people will pay.
So when I heard a referee say that "times are tough," I wondered what the hell was he talking about? Times are not tough at all. A referee basically cannot turn around without being offered a league or tournament. Sometimes we quote prices just to discourage prospective clients, only to be surprised when they accept our terms and now we’re stuck having to scramble to provide the officials. When we visited Las Vegas, we had tournament directors blow up our phones about whether we could stay an extra night because their tournament grew beyond expectations and they needed more staff. We could basically name our price on such short notice and there was plenty of money to go around. Times are wonderful!
Unfortunately, history and data suggests that the end is in sight. Just like the roaring 1920’s, the party eventually ends and when it does, it ends in spectacular fashion. Yesterday marked the second straight quarterly reading of GDP contraction, one of the leading indicators of an imminent recession. A multitude of macroeconomic and political factors have created what many experts call a "bubble economy." When it bursts, the money supply dries up, jobs die, and the scarcity we enjoy in a craft of relatively few practitioners will suddenly become exponentially more crowded. Remember the Great Recession? Everybody and their mother started to dig striped shirts out from the back of their closets so they could pick up a few games to make ends meet. I'm not looking forward to getting those phone calls again from referees distraught over getting laid off and needing something to get them through until their unemployment checks come in. Times aren't tough yet, but they soon will be.
When that time comes, it would be nice if we had laid a foundation in grassroots officiating to provide for us in times of need. While we still have the leverage and the labor market is still tight, now is our last chance to negotiate the proper working conditions and pay rates that we will probably be stuck with for another decade.
However, it’s not enough that we simply “get while the gettin’s good." Our sense of self-respect needs to persist even when the bad times come about. During the pandemic, the entire American workforce gained a fresh perspective on the value of labor — and even more importantly: our time. We got accustomed to spending more of it at home, with our families, at our hobbies; it took a lot more to convince us to spend our weekends in a hot smelly gym. We demanded more money, better working conditions, heightened accountability for coaches, and for administrators to treat us with respect. We didn’t let middlemen assignors push us around. We enjoyed true independence.
Remember those feelings! Remember this feeling of being valued and desired. Embrace this feeling of control. Pretty soon, tournament directors and middlemen** will try to wrestle it away from us. They’ll use the excuse of another recession, regardless of whether it actually affects their bottom line, to force us back to into service on their terms. We'll be back scavenging for games like mangy dogs with no sense of value or self-respect.
Then times will truly be tough again.
* Source: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/inflation-corporate-profits-record/
** I use the term "middlemen" to describe assignors that fail at their job of representing their officials. Those are the assignors that negotiate a rate with the league/tournament runners, then negotiate a far lower rate with referees, trying to pocket as big a difference as possible; upwards of 60%. Those people are no different than regular commodity dealer (or middlemen), with no sense of ethics or fiduciary responsibility to the referees on their roster.