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Southeastern Wisconsin's three-person system featured in Referee Magazine

Jan. 21, 2013

The zebras are herding.

The trend of a third official at high school basketball games has spread, with the Woodland Conference adding three to its league slate this year and the Greater Metro set to adopt three-person teams next year, joining the Classic 8, Southeast, Wisconsin Little Ten, City and others.

It's hard to see the evolution as anything less than hugely beneficial. The addition has created better game management, better communication with coaches and better assessment of the action. Even casual fans can notice the difference in officiating quality between two-person and three-person crews, even when the two-person officials happen to be talented veterans.

Officials have been one of the biggest driving forces behind the switch to three person, and that shouldn't surprise anyone; after all, with more jobs available on a given night, the opportunity for steady work increases significantly. But the motivation wasn't purely about money.

George Hammond of Referee Magazine profiles Southeastern Wisconsin in his article "One and Won," appearing in the February issue. He dissects how area officials associations were able to unite and forward the three-person mentality, even as budget cutbacks had local conferences hesitant to maintain the more expensive model.

Banding together

Three years ago, six officials associations in the Greater Milwaukee area began discussing ways to convince conferences to shift over to the three-person model, believing the method would improve the quality of basketball. Recognizing that budget constraints were top of mind for everyone, and paying another official wasn't a sexy way to dedicate precious resources, the officials didn't emphasize pay scale. Each conference pays its officials by its own rates, and officials weren't asking to be paid the same for three-person as two-person games.

The Southeast and Classic 8 were both considering a shift back to two-person from three-person, with the Classic 8 going as far as determining which official to drop from three-person crews for the 2011-12 season. But it never happened.

The Classic 8 released all officials from their contracts because they'd been signed under the impression that the games would have three officials. According to the article, the thinking was that the strongest two officials would re-up, and the trend going forward would be to have the strongest two officials working. Instead, most elite officials greatly preferred the three-person system and began declining opportunities to ref anything else. Conferences using two-person crews were losing some of the best talent.

Officials are essentially freelancers who contract directly with the school (nonconference games) or conference. Even though they belong to associations, those serve primarily as a coordinating and educational body. There are plenty of opportunities to work elsewhere if they simply say no.

The article portrays the situation as subtle persuasion on the officials' part, perhaps even unintentionally, rather than an all-out "boycott" by top referees. But whatever it was, it worked, as both the Southeast and Classic 8 kept the three-person system, with other conferences jumping on board. Among area leagues, only the North Shore has no plans to use a three-person system by 2013-14.

Better basketball

To ensure the three-person system truly represents an increase in quality, the newly-formed Wisconsin Basketball Officials Association has created an intensified educational process. Members are asked to complete eight hours of classroom education, a 100-question study guide and a 200-question exam in addition to what the WIAA requires.

The WIAA has used three-person crews for the upper tiers of its postseason, but none of this means the governing body will switch from two-person crews at the regional level. Though the WIAA has been using three-person teams starting in the regional final since 2005, the unit isn't likely to make all postseason games three-person - it's too difficult to find enough bodies for the rural parts of the state, and the WIAA prefers a uniform process for all corners of Wisconsin.

If you've witnessed a two-person and three-person officiating crew in action this year, you've probably been struck by the lack of negative "impact" three-person crews have on a game's outcome relative to their two-person counterpart. Most of us think officials are wrong a lot, but since it appears their heavy involvement helped proliferate the three-person system, you have to like this call.

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