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

Gear Review: RefsCall Flag Set

Sometimes I feel like I should be on the payroll at Official Sports International. While I’ve always had good customer service experiences with OSI, I find the lack of documentation and thin item descriptions in the online catalog frustrating. So, many of my reviews of OSI gear end up conveying very basic information that is simply left out of the official OSI description.

Such is the case with the RefsCall flag set ($235) available from OSI and Referee Store.com. To help you decide whether to spend $235 on a set of flags, OSI provides the following information:

A full function electronic flag set at a great price. Set includes two flags for the assistant referees, an arm receiver for the referee in the middle and a distinctive set of OSI checkered flags plus flat flag case. Most OSI swivel flags will fit on these poles. The receiver can be set for sound only, vibration only or for both sound and vibration. The system has been produced for all kinds of weather and will perform very well in wet conditions. Easy to use and each component takes a standard 9V battery. A set of three batteries is included with each set. Exclusively from Official Sports. 1 year warranty.

And that’s it.

To make the decision to spend this amount of money on a beeper flag set, I’d like a little more information, and maybe even a downloadable owner’s manual (as it happens, the printed sheets included with the flags don’t tell you much, unless you can read German. Luckily, iTOOTR kann ein bisschen Deutsch sprechen)

Sigh. Well, I guess this where iTOOTR comes in. So, I don’t look at it as helping OSI so much as helping referees decide whether a given item is worth the purchase price. In this case, I’d answer that question with a qualified “yes”.

The Flags

The flag handles are made of high impact black plastic, and are longer and fatter than standard flags. The plastic is smooth and this could lead to the handle being a bit slippery, especially in wet or sweaty conditions. I imagine this could be easily remedied by applying some tacky tennis racket grip material, if desired.

The butt end of the handle features a screw cap, that when removed reveals the 9V battery. Replacing the 9V battery isn’t a straightforward as it might seem due to a tight fit; I had to wrestle with the battery and finally resorted to using a small flathead screwdriver to get the battery out far enough to get my fingers on it. The user instructions claim that the batteries in the handle will last for at least 5000 actuations of the transmit button.

The transmit button is a soft piece of frosted clear plastic, backed by a spring for resistance. A green LED sits right above the transmit button and lights when the button is pressed. When the button is held down for longer than about 1 sec, a short beep is emitted from the handle. The instructions give no indication about this functionality; my guess is that it simply indicates that transmission has taken place.

The flags themselves are standard issue OSI checkered flags, and appear to be the same as on the Basic Swivel Set (#1532). The poles are the same swivel design as found on other OSI flag sets; the poles are equipped with a small collar near the base that has loop velcro attached to it. The flag material has the corresponding hook velcro material that keeps the flag securely attached to the pole.

The flag and handle weigh in at 7.5 ounces, including battery.

The Receiver

The receiver, worn by the referee, is also made of black impact plastic. It is designed to be worn on the arm, using the included armband (more on that later). The dimensions of the receiver are 3.25″ long, 2.375″ wide, and 1″ thick. Including battery, the receiver weighs 3.3 ounces.

The receiver has two buttons on the side and two LEDs on top of the unit. The buttons serve three different purposes: to power the unit on and off; change the notification signal between tone, vibrate, or both; and to place the unit in “Learn” mode for pairing with the flags.

The instructions don’t give an estimated battery life for the receiver. Each component ships with a 9V battery pre-installed.

Accessories

Included with the flags and receiver are an armband for the receiver and a simple nylon zip bag for carrying everything. The armband is very simple: a black nylon fabric with velcro at either end, and a clear vinyl pouch through which the armband is threaded. The pouch holds the receiver when in use. I was immediately suspicious of the vinyl pouch; it just didn’t look like it would hold up all that well. Furthermore, due to the design, the armband doesn’t hold the whole receiver flush against your arm, but only that part of the receiver that touches the armband. As a result, the receiver could flop and move slightly when you’re running. I quickly decided on a replacement armband, which I cover below.

The included nylon bag is similar to many other flag carrying bags you’ve seen. This one zips closed instead of using velcro flaps. It’s bright yellow and has the RefsCall logo screen on one side. It won’t provide much more than basic protection for your flags, but assuming you put your flags in your ref bag with your other gear, they should be protected against most hazards. If you’re so inclined, you can purchase a specially made, foam-lined carrying case for the somewhat exorbitant price of $75. I really don’t think it is necessary, as these aren’t delicate pieces of high-tech electronics.

Usage

Before using the first time (or after changing the battery), you’ll need to pair the flags with the receiver. This is a fairly simple operation and is described fully in the user instructions. The receiver can be set to sound a beep, vibrate only, or beep and vibrate. I chose to use the vibrate only option, and in two games, had no problem recognizing when the assistant referees were asking for my attention.

It is possible to press the transmit button on the flags without activating the receiver; I discovered that a very quick press and release of the transmit button was not picked up by the receiver. I strongly recommend that your pre-game include a quick test with your ARs so they know how long to hold the button in order for the signal to be received.

After use in two matches, I can report that my crew encountered no glitches with the flags. None of the ARs reported a time where they pressed the transmit button that I didn’t respond with eye contact. The flags came in handy in two identical instances in both games: injuries that were behind play and out of my sight.

A little bothersome was the fact that a brand new alkaline 9V battery in the receiver was shot after only two matches. I’ll report back after a few more uses to see if this trend continues.

A very important point that is not included anywhere in the OSI documentation: both transmitters trigger the same response from the receiver. This is in contrast to the (significantly more expensive) Ervocomm and Touchline flags, where each transmitter sends a unique signal to the receiver (e.g.; one beep from AR1, two beeps from AR2). I didn’t find this to be a problem at all, but it is something that you should know before you purchase.

Recommendations

In terms of match fees, $235 is a lot of money to spend on a set of flags, so you should think carefully before buying beeper flags. I found that I had an increased level of confidence knowing that I was not going to miss an offside flag or some nonsense going on behind my back. That being said, the flags aren’t a substitute for ongoing eye contact with your ARs; you have to think of beeper flags as an additional tool at your disposal, not a crutch for bad habits.

If you find that you miss the odd offside flag – and you’re fairly serious about refereeing – you might find these flags give you just that bit more confidence.

Once you start using beeper flags, make sure you cover how you want them used in your pre-game. Here’s how I handled it:

I want a signal (i.e., press the button) in the following situations:

  • All offside decisions
  • All fouls
  • Quick in/out of play decisions on my quadrant’s touchline, or on the goal line
  • When, at the taking of a penalty kick, you have a problem with the outcome
  • Substitutions (AR1 only)
  • Any other time you feel my attention is needed immediately and I am not looking at you

Since only 1 of the 4 ARs with whom I worked over these two games had used beeper flags previously, I intentionally tried to keep the instructions simple and to the point. As mentioned earlier, I also had them “practice” pushing the transmit button while holding the receiver so that they could get a feel for how the system works.

Finally, I mentioned the suspect looking armband earlier. I elected to purchase a armband designed for a smartphone and use it instead. I bought the Philips Actionfit Sport Sleeve armband ($15) and it worked quite well. It holds the entire receiver firmly against your arm, so that it doesn’t flop around when you run. The armband is available in a couple of different sizes, and Amazon stocks them as well. You’d do well to buy one of these, along with plenty of spare batteries.

Six Month Usage Update

  • The plastic grips do get slippery when wet, which led to a couple of drops when raising the flag
  • Because the programming buttons are on the outside of the receiver, it is easy for them to get accidentally “pressed” when using the Philips armband.  Putting the receiver in the armband first, then turning it on, and only then putting the armband on helped alleviate this problem
  • The receiver can occasionally forget its’ programming, requiring you to re-pair the flags to the receiver.  Be sure to check operation well before kick-off
  • The receiver can rarely “lock up” such that no amount of button pressing will shut it off.  In this case, only by removing the battery can you “reboot” the receiver.  This never happened during a match; only when trying to re-pair the flags to the receiver
  • If you prefer an adjustable armband, a good alternative is the TuneBelt Armband Carrier for MP3 Players.  I’ve tried it and prefer it to the Philips armband.

Click/tap the image to enlarge.