New USSF Referee Uniform Details

I’ve been in touch with representatives of Official Sports and have some further details about the new USSF referee uniforms.

The new shirt style is a big departure from the outgoing version.  Stylistically, there are a lot of similarities with the Adidas referee shirts, with only the stripes under the pockets and on the cuffs of the sleeves recalling the outgoing design.  This is in keeping with OSI’s design goal of an “updated, sleek look.”

A Brand New Style

Two breast pockets are closed with velcro and utilize a small black pull tab to open.

The right sleeve features the USSF Referee Program logo, complete with updated US Soccer logo.

Collars on the outgoing-style shirt  were prone to not laying flat; the new smaller collar should be less problematic.

The traditional button placket has been replaced with a sleek black zipper.  That the zipper is much more narrow than the button placket adds to the modern look of the shirt.

The side panels of the shirt are a mesh material, which should improve airflow through the shirt.

OSI states that the new shirts are lighter in weight and feature a much more athletic cut.  After seeing the jersey in person, and speaking with referees who have worn them, I can confirm this is the case.  The new shirt is significantly lighter, owing to using less material, and probably to changes to the materials themselves.

Sizing It Up

Sizing of the new shirt is somewhat different, as the cut of the shirt is more narrow in the body and shoulders, and the sleeves are shorter and tighter, according to OSI.  Referees are encouraged to check the sizing information on the OSI website before selecting a size.  Based on the size guide, I ordered a large, while I wore an extra large in the outgoing style. Even if your shirt size doesn’t change based on the new sizing chart, OSI reports that some referees are moving down a size to achieve a sleeker, more athletic look.

There is finally a women’s version of the shirt.  The women’s cut features a tapered bodice, smaller shoulders and shorter sleeves when compared to the men’s version.

Color My World

5 colors will continue to be standard in the new style, with yellow (pictured) replacing gold.  The other colors – red, green, black and blue – are similar to the current style, but a bit “brighter” according to OSI.

Pricing and Availability

The new Pro shirt will sell for $48.95 in short-sleeve and $49.95 in long-sleeve.  Compared to the current shirt, the new shirt price is an increase of $3 and $4, respectively, over the new styles.  The increase of about 7% seems reasonable, given that OSI has not raised prices on shirts in several years. Keep in mind that shipping is not included in the price.

An Economy version of the shirt is available as well, and the feature differences from the Pro version are about the same as the currently style (open, V-neck collar and no velcro closures on the pockets for the downscale version).

The yellow and green short-sleeve version of the shirt is available for order now on the OSI website.  The red shirts can be seen on the site, but are not currently available for order.  Blue and black versions in both long and short sleeves will be available in November.  Long sleeve versions of yellow, green and red are expected in mid-August.

The women’s cut Pro version of the yellow shirt is available now.

Starter Kits

OSI states that all economy starter kit orders will now feature the new style shirt and should start shipping by the end of July.  This will aid Referee Instructors and assignors, as we won’t have to tell new referees which shirt to order; new Starter Kit orders will receive the new shirt.

OSI also introduced a Pro Starter Kit, which features the Pro shirt and pro shorts in place of the Economy versions, as well as the USSF two-stripe socks (3 pcs. total).  The Pro starter kit pricing offers an effective discount of 12% when compared to buying the items separately.

Keep It Short

The Pro version of the shorts are not changing, save for the updated US Soccer logo embroidered on the right leg.  OSI plans to offer a new Women’s Pro Short by the end of August.

USSF Guidance

OSI says that USSF says the current jerseys can be worn through the 2018 season, which is a generous transition period.  I confirmed with USSF crews on youth games will be allowed to mix styles, as new referees will have only the new style shirt.

My Impressions

I like the new style.  It’s current and fresh and fits much more appropriately for officials who should be reasonably fit.  I like the use of the thick/thin stripe as a nod to the outgoing style, which, let’s face it, has been with us for many, many years.  (I don’t count the change from the pin stripe to the thick/thin stripe as a major change).  The shirt is much lighter and comfortable, and the yellow should rarely be in conflict with a team color.  All in all, I welcome these changes as long overdue.

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Gear Review: RefsWorld Gear Organizer

When wrapping up a new referee certification course, I always emphasize the need to stay organized.  When you’re on the field for three games (or more) on a weekend day, it’s easy to lose track of all the bits and bobs you need on the day.

The Organizer from RefsWorld fits the bill nicely, and appears to be the only organizer created specially for referees.  (For me, the gear organizer from Official Sports always felt like a shaving kit with an extra piece of nylon attached to it.)

The black nylon case features a tri-fold design, and is kept closed by a sturdy velcro strip.  When opened, each of the three panels are covered with containers, all with see through plastic coverings, and each closed with either a zipper or velcro strap.

The entire left panel is comprised of a single container, perfect for storing law/rule books and other large, mostly flat items.  The middle panel features two small rectangular pouches at the top – perfect for storing your cards – while the bottom of the middle panel features another large pocket for medium-sized items.  Finally, the right panel features two long and narrow rectangular zippered pouches, where my whistles and writing implements found a convenient home.

I managed to get the 25 items shown the gallery below in the Organizer, with room to spare.  Only my SPINTSO referee watch gave me a problem; it’s so large an inflexible that the Organizer wouldn’t close when I tried to include the SPINTSO.

The Organizer is well built and the see through plastic on all containers makes finding what you’re looking for a snap.

RefsWorld is an Australia-based referee gear manufacturer and supplier, and the The Top Ref is the exclusive North American distributor.

Only the relatively expensive price (USD 17) keeps the Organizer from receiving a perfect 5-star review.

Gear Review: Electronic Flags Roundup

There are only three makers of electronic flags whose products are widely available: RefsCall, Touchline, and Ervocom.  Which should you consider?  Are the Touchline and Ervocom models really worth 3x the price of the RefsCall flags?  We’ll answer these questions and more as we take an in depth look at Electronic Flags.

Cost

Let’s get this out of the way up front: electronic flags are expensive.  RefsCall flags can be had for around $230, while both the Touchline and Ervocom sell for about $725,  Electronic flags are a great tool, but they don’t come cheap.

Features in common

All electronic flag systems are designed to do one task: allow the Assistant Referees to alert the Referee when they have information to provide.  In all three flag systems, this is done by radio communication.  The flag stick contains a button that, when pressed, transmits a signal to a receiving unit, which is worn on the bicep of the referee.  In similar fashion to a cell phone, all three products allow the receiving unit to be set to emit a tone, to vibrate, or to do both simultaneously.  Each flag stick provides confirming feedback to the AR when the transmission has been sent. All three products use standard 9V batteries in both the flag sticks and in the receiving unit.  Battery life for the flags sticks is many, many matches, while battery life for the receiving unit varies from 8 to 12 matches.

Flag sticks

This is where the three products on offer differ the most from each other, beginning with material used.  The RefsCall flag stick handle is made from impact resistant, smooth plastic, while the Touchline and Ervocom stick handles offer a rubberized handle, that has texture, making it easier to grip, especially with wet hands.  The RefsCall flags can be slippery, especially in wet conditions, or when a gripped by a particularly sweaty assistant referee.

The Ervocom flag stick is longer than the Touchline; whether this is a good or bad thing is completely a matter of preference.  Referees that are under 6 ft in height tended to prefer the shorter Touchline flag stick, along with its’ smaller flag.  Taller referees didn’t appear to have a preference. Flag Handle Composites

The grip on the Ervocom flag stick is textured and bumpy with raised “bumps” on the handle to promote grip.  The Touchline flags feature the Touchline logo embossed on the handle, which also enhances grip.  From my point of view, I can’t say I prefer one over the other. The assistant referee gets feedback from each of the flag systems to let them know they have completed a button press that has notified the referee.  In the case of the RefsCall, the LED on the stick lights and short beep is emitted.  It is so quiet that it really can’t be heard during the excitement of a match.  The LED is only useful when “pairing” or setting up the flags. The flags from Ervocom and Touchline vibrate slightly when the call button is pressed, so the AR knows very clearly that a message has been sent to the receiver.  Both flag sticks feature two buttons on the handle; each is located 180 degrees around the stick from the other.

All of the flag sticks use a standard 9V battery which will last for many matches before needing to be replaced.  Replacing the battery is as simple as unscrewing a cap at the bottom of the flag, fishing the battery out, replacing it, and reversing the process from there.

Receiving units

The RefsCall receiver is quite basic: it’s a bit bulky and not contoured to fit to your shoulder.  The vibrator motor is strong, so you can feel it when an AR alerts you.  As previously reported, the armband that ships with the unit is practically useless.  The vibration pattern or tone is the same for both flag sticks.

The Ervocom and Touchline receivers are both contoured to fit snugly against your shoulder.  The Touchline unit includes a separate armband that works quite well; the Ervocom unit has an integrated armband strap.  Both armband systems work well. The vibration motor in the Touchline receiver is much stronger than that of the Ervocom; I found the Ervocom vibration a bit difficult to detect. Receiver Composite

All three units have the option to vibrate only, beep only, or vibrate and beep.  Changing the settings on the Touchline and RefsCall is fairly straightforward, while the Ervocom unit requires a screwdriver (included) to open the unit and access a set of internal DIP switches.

The battery on each receiving unit can be expected to last anywhere from 6 to 10 matches.  It’s a good idea to always keep a spare.  While the Touchline and Ervocom systems will warn you when the battery is low, The RefsCall receiver will simply fail to start.  For those particularly obsessive referees, it might be a good idea to keep a 9V battery tester voltmeter so that the exact power level could be taken before each match.

Replacing the battery is straightforward in the case of the RefsCall and Touchline flags.  You simply remove an access door (RefsCall) or the receiver cover (Touchline) to access the battery.  The battery compartment on the RefsCall unit is very tight, and the battery and clip have to be oriented exactly as they were when you removed the battery.  Failure to do so will make it nearly impossible to get the compartment door back in place. The Ercovom battery can only be accessed by opening the receiving unit via the supplied screwdriver.  While this certainly isn’t as convenient as simply removing a cover or access door, it only has to be done every once in a while, so I wouldn’t let this deter you from a purchase.

Maintenance

All three systems allow the flag cloth to be removed so it can be washed or replaced.  Some even offer different styles of replacement flags, so you could switch from a diamond pattern to something else, if you preferred.  The Touchline system flags are the easiest to remove, as they are held in place by a simple locking cap at the top of the stick.

The RefsCall manual suggests lubricating the O-rings on the flag stick battery covers on occasion to keep them from drying out and cracking.

Apart from that, no maintenance needs to be done on any of the flags systems.

Extras

The RefsCall set ships with the two flags, receiving unit, a (useless) arm strap, and a carrying bag. Complete Flag Sets The Ervocom set includes the flags, receiving unit with integrated armband, a Phillips head screwdriver for accessing the inside of the receiver, and a rigid foam carrying case. The Touchline set includes the flags, receiving unit, armband, a canvas carrying bag, and a rigid foam carrying case.

Recommendations

There is a big price difference between the RefsCall set and the other two, and with good reason.  The Ervocom and Touchline sets are much more thoughtfully and ergonomically designed, offer a protective carry case, and have the ability to have each flag transmit a different signal to the referee (e.g. beep once for AR1, beep 2x for AR2).

Still, if you would like to dip you toes in the waters of electronic flags, you’ll be okay with a RefsCall set, assuming you go and get a proper armband to replace the one packed with the unit. If you’re very serious about refereeing and/or don’t mind spending 3x the cost of the RefsCall, you’ll want to choose between the Ervocom and the Touchline flags.

Choosing comes down largely to a matter of preference.  Do you prefer a shorter flag stick (and correspondingly smaller flag), or would you like the longer shaft and flag of the Ervocom set?  You’ll have to decide that.  If you are able, try to borrow a set from a referee that has one so you can check it out.

Finally, I found the weaker vibrator motor on the Ervocom a problem for me, but I know plenty of referees who say it isn’t a problem for them.

My 1st choice is the Touchline Powerflags, but I don’t think you could go wrong with the Ervocom flags.  If you can’t bring yourself to part with $725 for flags, the RefsCall set is perfectly serviceable at 1/3 the price.

Where to Buy (USA)

Touchline Powerflags are available exclusively through ProReferee.com.

RefsCall flags are available at Official Sports and Referee Store.com

Ervocom flags are available exclusively through Referee Store.com.

Ervocom receiver photo courtesy of l’arbitre

All About Radios

When Premier League (and MLS) referees started using radio communications, I was immediately intrigued.  Being both a referee and bit of a tech nerd, I had to investigate and see if I could use something similar.

Little did I know that my research would eventually become so involved or take as long as it has.  But, the result of my exploration is a fairly in-depth look into all of the options available to referees.

Starting at the Top

The Premier League, MLS, and, most top leagues around the world, use the Vokkero Referee Communication System.  Made by the French company Adeunis RF, it is state-of-the-art.  It features full duplex (open mic, no push-to-talk button), encrypted and an exceptionally long range (800 meters).  While I’ve never used one (despite requests to the manufacturer for a review set), referees who have rave about the clarity and quality of the system.  It even filters the whistle tone so that the Assistant Referees aren’t blasted when the referee blows.

All of the functionality comes at a very steep price.  An entry level set for three users starts at about $2100.  A full featured set like those used in the Premier League, with custom headsets for four users easily tops $5000.  If you’re interested in purchasing one of these systems, they can be found at Referee Store.com and Official Sports in the USA.

I’ve used a set of Vokkero radios extensively, and they really are top drawer.  Sound quality is excellent; better than a telephone, I would rate fidelity on par with a smartphone in “HD calling” mode.  There are no buttons to push at all.  You strap the radios to your shoulder, plug up the headsets, turn them on, adjust volume, and off you go.  It can be distracting at times, as the referee, hearing AR1 talking to the technical areas or the substitutes, but the ability to communicate so easily makes it clear why the Vokkeros are a must for the highest levels of the game.  Look for a full review on the Vokkeros soon.

My only complaint about the Vokkeros – apart from price, of course – is that the armbands tend to loosen over time and will slip down your arm.  You have get them very tight from the off to ensure they won’t slip, and that can be a bit uncomfortable.

Realizing that Vokkeros would be out of reach for almost all referees below the top level, I began investigating alternatives.  I’ve tried a total of six different sets, ranging in price from about $100 to $800.  My investigation required me to learn a lot more about radio communication than I initially planned: radio transmission technologies, licensing requirements, headset availability and compatibility, battery life, and so on.  I’m going to spare you most of the technology details.  Maybe I’ll write those up in a future post.  For now, I’ll focus on the implications of what I’ve found.

Common Features

All the radios and technologies discussed here share the following features in common:

  • Range: More than enough range to work on a soccer field.  If you want to use the radios for other purposes, you’ll need to do more homework.  Just keep in mind that the range stated on the package is under “ideal conditions” which don’t ever exist in the real world.
  • External headset support.  What varies between radios is what type of headset that can be used, and the range of choices available.
  • Rechargeable batteries are also common to all of these units.  Some also allow you to use regular alkaline batteries as a backup.
  • Push-to-Talk. With one exception, these radios primarily use push-to-talk (PTT) to facilitate communication between users.  You push a button, usually on the microphone, when you want to speak.  As soon as your button is pushed, all other users are prohibited from transmitting; they’ll have to wait until you are done speaking to have their turn.  Using PTT takes some practice and coaching because users tend to start talking just before pushing the PTT button, and then release the button before they finish.  This leads to some very choppy transmissions, especially on monosyllabic words like “yes” and “no”.

So what about those sets the Premier League referees use? Open mic, full duplex and all of that?   Apart from the Vokkero, that technology is available only on the Ref Comm system from Referee Store.com.  I’ve used a predecessor to the Ref Comm set only once, and that wasn’t in a match environment.  Others who have tested it say that background noise is distracting.  The manufacturer says background sound levels can be adjusted.  I plan to conduct my own testing of this system in the future.

A quick word about “VOX”.  VOX is a transmission mode included on many radios.  It stands for Voice Activated eXchange, and promises to activate the microphone when it detects you speaking.  This sounds good in theory, because you then don’t have to use your PTT button.  But in reality, the mics tend to be either too sensitive or not sensitive enough, making them very frustrating to use.  Most referees I know don’t bother with VOX.

Entry Level

Starting at roughly $60 for a set of four, the least expensive entry into radios is a set that operate on the Family Radio Service (FRS) or General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) frequency bands (these are North American frequencies; I’m sure there are corresponding technologies in the EU, but I didn’t investigate). FRS/GMRS radios are what you would normally think of as “walkie-talkies”, and are widely available.  Using one of the radios on the FRS bands does not require an FCC operator’s license; using GMRS does require a license.  That said, there is nothing stopping you from using a GMRS (or any other radio) without a license, apart from the thread of a fine from the FCC.  You’ll have to decide it’s worth the risk.

FRS/GMRS radios features typically include several channels to choose from (to avoid interference from other radio users on the same channel), and basic encryption that prevents scanners from listening in on your conversations.

Most of the units are fairly small and feature long battery life that should get you through an afternoon of matches without any problems.

You’ll need to purchase headsets for use with your radios, and those will run you another $30 to $50 for a set of four.  Headsets for these radios are typically proprietary to the radio; you can’t use a headset from another radio brand or your phone.  The two types of headsets I tried and would recommend are the “surveillance style” (think about what law enforcement officers wear) and the boom headset style.

There are numerous brands available, but Midland appears to be the most popular among referees.  Midland radios are widely available, including at big box superstores and online retailers.  Here’s the set I tried.

The sound quality on Midland radios is acceptable, but not great.  I found the boom headset produced better sound than the surveillance headsets, probably because of the proximity of the microphone to the user’s mouth.  Noticeable is a “click” sounds when someone presses the transmit button, followed by a bit of static when the button is released.

You’ll need a way to strap the radio to your body; the belt clips don’t grip refereeing shorts tightly enough and will bounce around when you run.  I tried four or five different types and finally found a couple that were acceptable. See the separate section on armbands below for details.

The Midland radios are little cumbersome to wear strapped to your shoulder, but not overly so.  Make sure you get a set with a lockable keypad; this prevents the keys from being accidentally pressed while you are getting is strapped to your body.

In summary, FRS radios like those available from Midland are inexpensive, have good range, have a couple of choices for headsets, and have good battery life.  On the downside, you do only have a couple of headset choices, the sound quality is just okay, and location of the PTT button – usually clipped on to your shirt placket – can be inconvenient.

Business Class Radios

Business Class Radios operate on a reserved frequency band and require an FCC license to operate.  Most resellers don’t require you to provide proof of a license before purchase, but some do.

In many ways, Business Class Radios are similar to their FRS cousins.  They look the same, buttons and menus tend to be very similar, and operate using PTT technology.

But they offer some important advantages, including more rugged construction (many claim to meet military specs for water, dust, and drop resistance), improved sound quality, greater control over specific features, and a much wider range of available accessories and headsets.  In addition, some of the radios in the class are significantly smaller, making them quite comfortable when worn on the body.

Of course, these features come at a price, with most business class radios starting at about $129 each, not including headsets.

I tried two different radios in this group: an older Kenwood, model #TK-3130, a common, but retired,  business class radio, and a rather unique offering from Advanced Wireless Communications called the MiniPro.

Both of these radios boast a theoretical range of over 1 mile.  They both accept standard Kenwood style (K1) headsets, from which there are many to choose, and from a range of makers.  This is an important distinction, as the types of headsets available for the Midland FRS radios are more or less limited to the few made by Midland themselves.

I found the Kenwood 3130s at a bargain price on eBay.  And while I received a defective unit in my initial order, the seller quickly replaced the faulty unit with 2 good radios.  As of this writing, the seller, bonfireradios, is still offering these units for sale at about $15 each.

The 3130s are a bit on the large side, but at that price, I can deal with a little discomfort.  They fit snugly into a couple of the straps mentioned later.

The radios function well and sound much clearer than the cheaper FRS radios.  The transmit click and de-transmit static are almost undetectable in these radios, a feature my ears appreciated.

The MiniPro from Advanced Wireless Communications is a very compact, short range radio, primarily marketed to retail stores, restaurants and the like.  It doesn’t have a menu screen – settings are controlled by a series of button push combinations, confirmed by a robotic voice – which allows the radio to be much smaller.  The MiniPro is very lightweight and quite comfortable when worn strapped to a shoulder.  Sound quality was as good – if not a little better – than the Kenwood.  It uses a rechargeable battery pack and does not accept standard alkaline batteries.

Unfortunately, the transmit click on the MiniPro was similar to the Midland FRS radios; I found it distracting, but others who tested it didn’t even notice it until I brought it to their attention.

RefTalk

An article on radio communications for referees would be incomplete without a mention of RefTalk.  RefTalk was the first radio communication system used in MLS; it was later replaced by Vokkero.  RefTalk was founded by a USA-based referee and has been in business for several years.  So ubiquitous has RefTalk become that many referees use the term “RefTalk” to apply to any radio communication set (much the way Americans refer to any facial tissue as “Kleenex” or Brits call all vacuum cleaners “Hoovers”).  While the company was unable to provide iTOOTR with a set of radios for review, an investigation revealed that RefTalk is a business class radio, made by a large radio manufacturer and then applied with the RefTalk private label.  I would expect performance to be  similar to the other two business class radios reviewed here.  RefTalk introduced a full duplex radio version, called the RefTalk2, after the original publication of this post.

Business Class Radios are a big step up from FRS radios – in both features and price.  You’ll have to decide if these additional features are important enough to you to warrant the price jump.  For me, the choices in headsets alone were enough to justify the higher price.

Short Range Radios

After digging around for a while, I discovered another category of radios: Short Range.  These tend to be application-specific and targeted for use by professionals who don’t have a need for long range, like camera operators, crane operators, or referees.

Radios in this class typically operate on frequencies that don’t require an FCC license, and some offer full duplex (open mic) communication.

I tested two sets of radios in this class, both from Eartec Corporation.  The ComStar Communication Set was reviewed in detail on this site, so I’m only going to summarize here.  The ComStar radios are full duplex, meaning that there is no PTT button (although there is a mute button), and the microphones are always on.  As an AR on a match where the crew used these, it was fantastic to be able to hear the referee at all times, including when he spoke to players.

On the other hand, hearing AR1 manage substitutes, coaches and the technical area in general was a little distracting.  The referee’s whistle was a bit harsh on the ears.

Sound quality was very good, but we did pick up some unexplained interference on a couple of occasions.

Overall, I couldn’t justify the $1600 price tag for this set.

I also tested the SimulTalk 24G radios from EarTec.  These radios are sort of hybrid between full duplex and PTT.  When you order a set, you get a master radio and two (or more) remote units.  The master is always transmitting, so that the other members of the crew can hear the referee, and the referee doesn’t have to push a button to speak.

The assistant referees do have to push a button on the transmitter to speak to the referee.  The PTT button is located on the transmitter, not on the headset wire, so that these belt packs must be worn on the belt and not the shoulder in order to be accessible.  Once the talk button is pressed, it stays “on” until it is pressed again to release the radio from talk mode.  This means that a forgetful AR could prevent the AR from communicating with the referee is she were to forget to release the button after speaking.

On the other hand, it means that AR1’s microphone is not always open so that the other two members of the crew don’t have to listen to management of substitutes and coaches.

A side note for high school referees: if you ever work in a two-person crew, these radios are ideal because both units can be set for full duplex (open mic) mode.

The sound quality on the SimulTalk was similar to that of a cordless telephone, which shouldn’t be surprising since this is the technology used in the SimulTalk.

Range was more than adequate, and interference was never a problem in two separate tests in high school stadiums

The included headsets were uncomfortable for me, so I created an alternative, which I describe in the Headsets section.

Given that the SimulTalk radios retail for $125 each (plus headsets), and feature (nearly) full duplex communication, this is the set I  settled on for my own use, until I finally broke down and purchased the Vokkero set.

Headsets

Selecting a headset in many ways is more important than the radio itself.  After all, you’re going to be wearing a headset for 90 minutes (or more if you’re doing multiple games), so comfort, stability when running, and durability are very important considerations.

Midland brand FRS radios have several Midland branded headsets available, but very few third-party options.  Of the Midland-made headsets, I found only two that were suitable for use in refereeing: the surveillance style headset, and the boom mic (that boom mic appears to be discontinued.  This boom is very similar).  The advantage of the boom mic is clearer communications because the mic is much closer to your mouth than with the surveillance style set, which clips on your shirt placket.  On the other hand, I bumped the microphone a couple of times when raising the whistle to blow.  Perhaps keeping the boom mic on the side of your face opposite the hand you keep the whistle in would solve this small problem.

Business class radios typically have a number of headset options available.  There are a handful of de facto standards for headset-to-radio connections, the most common of which is the Kenwood style (K1).  Make sure you check the headset and radio specifications carefully, because there is more than one Kenwood headset connector type.  I tried several K1 headsets with my business class radios and finally settled on a surveillance style set from Impact Communications.  These headsets aren’t inexpensive with a retail price around $95 each.  What you get for a premium price is a premium quality headset.  The wires are Kevlar coated for durability, and the speaker mechanisms used in the microphones and speakers produce much better sound that lower-priced alternatives.  In addition, Impact makes a three-wire version of the headset, which gives you a remote PTT switch that you can place anywhere you choose (I found my waistband to be the best place).  The three-wire sets take some time to get fitted, so make sure you have at lest 30 minutes for your crew to get everything on a tested prior to you match.

I also found that headsets made for other purposes – like for use with a smartphone – could be adapted for use with a two-way radio, IF you are willing to do a little research and spend a little extra money.  The problem with using these headsets straight out of the box is that the plugs are wired differently from typical two way radio headsets.  This problem can be overcome with a little research and willingness to get a custom cable, either by paying for one or making it yourself.

To illustrate, I like my ety-com headset (Etymotic Research, $50) for iPhone so much, I wanted to use it with my radios.  In order to do that, I needed to get the wiring for the the plug on the headset, as well as the wiring for the jack on my radios.  These wiring specifications are known in the business as “pinouts” and most companies will provide them to you if you ask.  Once you know the pinouts of the headset and the radio, you can have a cable made that adaptes your headset to the radio.  I use ShowMeCables for this purpose, and while the prices aren’t cheap (about $40 per cable, including shipping), I’ve been pleased with the results.  Keep in  mind that you’ll still need a way to activate the PTT button, and the ety-com doesn’t come with a PTT button.  In my case, I used the ety-com headsets with the EarTec SimulTalk 24G radios, in which case you either don’t need a PTT button, or if you do, you use the button located on the unit itself.

Securing the Radio

You’ll need a mechanism for securing the radio against your body so that it won’t flop around when you run.  Generally speaking, clipping the radio to the waistband of your shorts doesn’t work very well.  The clip doesn’t have enough force to keep the radio from moving around when you’re running.  Fortunately, there are plenty of good, inexpensive alternatives.

Runner’s Belts

These are similar to what we Americans used to call “fanny packs”, only much smaller.  They fit around your waist have have a small, expandable zippered pocket for stowing items, including most radios.  I found the Kenwood TK-3130 was a tight fit, but most of the other radios I tested worked well.  I found the pouch still flopped around a bit on my back (I keep the pouch turned to my back), just enough to be bothersome, but this solution is secure enough and you can find plenty of them on amazon.com.

Shoulder Straps

I tested numerous shoulder straps, including one made specifically for two-way radios, and found one I can recommend.

For most radios, the iPhone 5 shoulder strap from Tune Belt ($19, Amazon) worked just fine.  There are also versions for iPhone 6, including a model that works with iPhone 6 without removing it from a case and 6 Plus.  I offer these alternatives in case you want to use the armband for refereeing and for working out.  It keeps the radio secure against your upper shoulder and it’s full enclosure means the radio won’t flop around when you’re running.  The SimulTalk Radios are a bit tight in these armbands with the headset plugged in.  I even prefer the Tune Belt armbands for use with my Vokkero set.

Advanced Wireless Communications offers a purpose-built Universal Armband for two-way radios.  The problem with this solution is that it wasn’t really designed with running in mind.  It uses the belt clip on the radio to clip to the shoulder strap.  When I ran with this, the radio still flopped around a bit.  And when a player bumped into me, the radio came off of the strap completely.

Summary

It is possible for referees below the top level to use radio communications without spending a fortune.  But keep your expectations properly set; full duplex communication with custom headsets will cost you a small fortune.  If you are willing to live with some trade-offs, you can find a communication set that is functional, practical and won’t break the bank.

Premier League Referee Gear Revealed

I get a lot of questions about the gear used by referees in the Barclays Premier League.  So after a bit (a lot, actually) of digging, I can tell you with a high degree of confidence about each piece of gear these top flight referees utilize.

I add the “high degree of confidence” qualifier because I wasn’t able to confirm each item with an official authority, like the PGMO for example.  But, between suppliers, deduction, and people-in-the-know, I believe I’ve sussed it out.

We’ll refer to the frame grab below of Mark Clattenburg, taken right before kick off of a BPL match.

Premier League Referee Gear

1. Radio Receiver

VOKKERO_SQUADRAThe state-of-the-art communication system utilized by Premier League (and most other top flight leagues around the world) comes at a steep price.  The Vokkero Squadra is a two-way radio, but with full duplex communication capability.  This means that referees need only to speak; no push-to-talk buttons are necessary.  The fourth official, however, does use a PTT setup, ostensibly to not the disturb the rest of the crew as he deals with managers and substitutes.

The system boasts a range of 800m and is fully encrypted to prevent eavesdropping.

Manufacturer:  Adeunis RF
Model: Vokkero Squadra Referee Communication System
Price: $3000 (three user set)
Want one?SoccerSuperstoreUSA.com

 

2. Headset

ComCom_1Alas, $3000 only gets you the stock headsets, and those certainly won’t do.  Phonak Communications makes the ComCom headset, which is available as a headset for commercial phone systems, or even your iPhone, if you don’t mind parting with $400.  You’ll also need to see an audiologist to get custom ear impressions done, which are then sent to Phonak for manufacture of your headset.  Add another $90 or so for that.  In the end, you get a high end communications ear piece guaranteed not to fall out of your ear when you run.

Manufacturer:  Phonak Communications AG
Model: ComCom
Price: $400, plus audiologist fees
More info: Phonak Communications

3. Flags Receiver

Powerflags ReceiverPremier League Assistant Referees use the Touchline Powerflags system for communication of offside and other important events between Assistant Referee and Referee.  The receiver features a curved body to better snug up on your upper arm, and can be set to vibrate only, beep only, or vibrate and beep.  The signal pattern is different for each AR, so the referee always knows who is paging him.  Conveniently, the receiver turns itself off after 2 hours of non-use.

Manufacturer:  A&H International
Model: Touchline Powerflags
Price: $725
Want one?: ProReferee.com, A&H International

 

4. Primary Watch

watch

There appears to be no standard for a referee’s primary timekeeping device; I’ve seen many different watches used by the top-flight referees.

Interestingly, the SPINTSO has never been spotted on the wrist of a Premier League referee.

 

5. Whistle

Fox40ClassicEngland’s best use only the Fox 40 Classic.  While Andre Marriner prefers the green version, the other Select Group referees choose black.

While I haven’t been able to confirm that the Fox 40 Classic is the “official” choice of the Premier League or PGMO, the fact that no variations are ever seen indicates that the Fox 40 is at the very least, the de facto standard.

 

Manufacturer:  Fox 40 International
Model: Fox 40 Classic
Price: $7
Want one?: Take your pick from Amazon.com, ProReferee.com, SoccerSuperstoreUSA.com, OfficialSports.com, and A&H International

 

6. Whistle Lanyard

lanyardWhile Select Group officials don’t all use the same model, they all use a wrist lanyard, leaving us to conclude that they are required by the PGMO.  Models spotted in use include Acme (pictured), Official Sports, and Fox 40.

Manufacturer:  Several
Price: $2-5
Want one?: Order from the same place you get your whistle

 

7. Goal Decision Watch

GDS WatchI’ve received more questions about the “red watches” than any other piece of referee gear.  The large watches outlined in red and worn on the sub-dominant wrist are part of the Goal Decision System used in the Premier League.  When the whole of the ball crosses the whole of the goal line, between the posts and under the crossbar, this watch vibrates and displays the word “GOAL” in large letters.  The goal line technology used in England – Hawkeye – is the same used in pro tennis.  A stadium installation purportedly costs GBP 500,000, which explains why we won’t be seeing it in MLS anytime soon.

Manufacturers:  Hawk-Eye Innovations (subsidiary of Sony Corp.) and Adeunis RF
Want one?: Pony up a cool half million and I bet they’ll throw one in

 

 

8. Uniform

nike jerseyOr “kit”, if you prefer. Starting with 2013, Nike is the official provider of referee uniforms for the Premier League.  Uniforms are an area where USA referees are definitely envious of our UK-based brethren.  We’re  stuck with jerseys from Official Sports, whose designs harken back to the “zebra stripes” of our American football referees.

Manufacturer:  Nike
Price: GBP 40 (jersey), or GBP 77 for the full kit
Want one?: A&H International

 

 

9. Pens, Pencils and Cards

Dowd Card and PencilAnother area where referees appear to have some discretion is with their choice of writing implements and disciplinary cards.  Mark Clattenburg and Michael Oliver use a pen, while Lee Mason and Howard Webb prefer a pencil.

As for cards, I’ve seen the usual suspects, including b+d’s offering, and the FIFA card set (pictured here in use by Phil Dowd).  Sadly absent: iTOOTR’s own custom made card set.  (A man can dream. . .)

Manufacturer:  b+d, others
Price: about $5-7
Want one?A&H International, SoccerSuperstoreUSA.com, ProReferee.com, iTOOTR Store on eBay

 

Ready to break out the plastic and order your Premier League setup?  Or are you perfectly happy with your gear?  Leave a comment below.Coming Soon: How you can gear up like the Premier League referees – for a fraction of the cost.

Gear Review: Hydro Flask Stainless Steel Drinking Bottle

Some of our gear reviews, including this one, contain affiliate links for which we receive commissions.  I only recommend gear I have personally used and reviewed.  Take a moment to read our Affiliate Link Policy.

You wouldn’t think it would be so hard to stay hydrated at the park.

For our international readers, parks in the USA range from state-of-the-art – with modern facilities and readily available potable water – to not much more than a former pasture converted to fields.  So referees have to be responsible for making sure they enough fluids to cover a three (or four, or five) match day.

The problem with the large, traditional plastic water jugs is that they don’t keep water cold for very long, and they inevitably leak when turned over after taking a sharp turn on the way to the field with sports drink in one hand, a quick bite in the other, and the steering wheel in the other.  Oh, right.

So, an iTOOTR reader challenged me to find a water jug that met the following criteria:

  • will keep liquids cold
  • won’t leak when tossed around the floorboard of the car
  • will hold 64 ounces (about 2L) of liquid

After a bit of searching, I found the Hydro Flask Stainless Steel Drinking Bottle, $45 via Amazon.  Not only does it meet the three criteria above, it’s also free of BPAs (owing to its’ stainless steel design), won’t sweat, and has a wide, comfortable drinking mouth.

The screw on/off cap is tethered to the vessel via a strong plastic neck band.  I don’t think there’s much risk of it breaking.

I filled the bottle and held it upside down (over the sink) in various positions, checking for leaks and didn’t find any.  I also drove it around the block a few times so it could roll around the floorboards: still no leaks.

The double wall construction prevented any sweating (condensation) on the outside.  The manufacturer says the Hydro Flask can also be used for hot beverages, though I didn’t test this.

Finally, the manufacturer offers a lifetime warranty that doesn’t cover “regular wear and tear” but does offer protection against such complaints as broken or leaking caps and flasks that no longer insulate.

What are the downsides?

The most obvious is the price.  At $45, it is much more expensive than a simple plastic jug.  And since I haven’t tested it long term, I’m not sure how it will hold up after a season of abuse in my car and on the field.  At the very least, I would expect the nice stainless steel finish to scratch and rough up.  I’ll report back on that after the end of Spring season.  But the lifetime warranty should ease concerns about the price of the flask.

The Hydro Flask is available in both stainless steel and matte black finishes in the 64 oz size, and in a multitude of colors in smaller sizes and is available via Amazon and other outdoor retailers.

Gear Review: ComStar Communication System

Radio communication systems are becoming increasingly popular at all levels of the game.  Many youth and amateur refs have figured out how to put together their own comm systems, using commonly available two-way radios,  bypassing the $2000+ price tag of the systems used in the professional game.

Companies in the wireless communication space have taken notice, and many of them have “repurposed” their offerings for other industries in an attempt to get in on the action.

Eartec Communication Systems is one such company.  Based in Narragansett, Rhode Island, USA, Eartec has been providing communication solutions for the industrial and manufacturing verticals and has repositioned the popular ComStar Full Duplex Communication System for use by referees ($1,599.95)

Before we get started, a quick primer on the basics of two-way radio communications is in order.  Most two-way radios (“walkie-talkies” if you prefer) are “simple duplex“, meaning that you push a button to speak, release the button to listen.  You can’t talk and listen at the same time, and no more than one person can talk at a time.

Full duplex, then, means that all parties can talk and listen at the same time.  A common example of this technology in action is right in your pocket: the mobile phone.

The ComStar Wireless System is full duplex.  This is a feature typically found only on higher end systems, and goes a long way toward explaining its $1600 price tag.

ComStar ships in a large (slightly overbuilt) high impact plastic road case, and consists of three components: the base station, which relays all communication between users; the headsets; and a belt pack which contains the transceiver.  The wired headset plugs into the belt pack transceiver.

The belt pack weighs in at a featherweight 2.5 ounces (71 grams) so it doesn’t weight you down at all.  But, it is a belt pack, and that requires, well, a belt.  For my two test matches, I tried wearing the ComStar belt pack on a runner’s belt (really just a smaller version of the fanny/hip packs of yesteryear) with mixed results.  The pack wanted to jump off of the belt when I was an AR on the first match.  It seemed to stay in place better when I used it in the middle on my second match.  Why the difference?  Beats me.

The headset is functional enough,  but isn’t particularly comfortable, and I found it tiresome about half way through the second half of the second game.  Sound quality was clear enough, although it wasn’t much better than a standard business class two way radio.  A more comfortable headset would be appreciated.

The base station, which can run on proprietary removable and rechargeable battery packs, or AC, couldn’t be more simple to use.  Just load the battery pack, turn it on, and you’re ready to go.  Same with the belt packs.  The system gets high marks for ease of use.  But I wonder about its ability to hold up under adverse weather conditions.  Luckily, I was able to test the system on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, without a cloud in the sky.  In Georgia, we often get pop up thunderstorms, especially in late afternoon during the late Spring months.  I imagine myself blowing the whistle during a promising attack build up and running full speed to get my $1600 radio system under cover.  “Sorry fellas, just had to take a quick time out!”

Having full duplex sound and therefore an open mic on each referee was easily the standout feature of the the ComStar system.  The first match I tested the system on was an Under 19 boys 1st division game.  These games typically require a decent amount of player management, and I found it very helpful (and insightful) to hear what the referee was saying to the players.

While the full duplex sound was appreciated, the system didn’t deal well with the referee’s whistle.  I expected more compression, similar to what you would experience on a typical two-way radio.  But what I heard was much more harsh and hard on the ears, as you can hear in the sound samples below. (portions  of the recordings were digitally enhanced to raise the volume of the player’s voices)

There were also problems with sound “glitching” and static from time-to-time during the match.  While the product literature claims an effective line-of-sight range of 400 yards, I found it struggling with 150 yards on a clear day and no visible obstructions.  At halftime of the second match, I moved the base station from the corner of the field where the referee team had setup, to a empty seat in the bleachers, right at midfield.  This position proved to be much better because we didn’t have any problems with static or glitching in the second half.

Overall, using the ComStar was a cool experience, and I definitely see the benefit of full duplex communication capability.  But for “only” a few hundred dollars more, I’d purchase the Vokkero Basix system – the entry level version of the system used in MLS and the BPL.  Until I have an extra $2000 available for that, I’ll be sticking with my self-assembled kit that I’ve spent far less on and am very happy with.

Thanks to the staff at Eartec Systems and SoccerSuperstoreUSA.com for providing the ComStar to iTOOTR for review.