Perhaps the most overlooked person in any sport is the most important one: the referee.
From youth sports to adult after-work leagues, the industry is growing, and according to Rent-A-Ref CEO Michael Radchuk, there is a shortage of referees. That’s why, in March 2016, he founded the “Uber of Referees” — Rent-A-Ref. Based out of Riverside, California, the website (and soon-to-be mobile platform) has been working with leagues all over the state, as well as in Colorado, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Illinois, Wisconsin and Texas.
Radchuk said demands for referees are coming in every day for basketball, rugby, soccer, flag football, kickball, softball, hockey, baseball, volleyball, lacrosse … and even beer pong, "which we didn’t plan to cover, but I guess the possibilities are endless.”
Since founding, the business has worked with more than 15 leagues on a consistent and daily basis, as well as worked to fill refs for more than 100 tournaments that were each “one-offs.” Radchuk said the database of referees includes more than 500, which is not only growing but helpful to compete against referee associations: “They’re basically armies of referees that concentrate on one single sport rather than many, which we offer.”
PYMNTS spoke with Radchuk about the founding of Rent-A-Ref, the unique issues that a startup like this faces and where the industry is headed.
PYMNTS: Explain what Rent-A-Ref is, and where it fills a need?
MR: Rent-A-Ref is a service — and soon, it will be a platform — that connects referees and those who are looking for referees for pick-up games, leagues, tournaments and anyone who is in need of referee services.
PYMNTS: Where and how did this idea square off, tip off or kick off?
MR: My background is in refereeing, and I’ve been refereeing for 14 years. While my forte is soccer, I grew up playing sports and getting involved in youth and adult recreational leagues. I noticed there was a large discrepancy of leagues being able to go to a direct source to find referees. There are leagues that run multiple sports — let’s say soccer, baseball, football, basketball — and they have to go through a lot of different sources, rather than one direct entity to find referees. There were instances where a referee would cancel last minute, and spots would not be able to be filled, and the games would become scrimmages because there’s no official there to be the middleman essentially.
PYMNTS: How much funding have you received?
MR: We’re self-funded. We didn’t think that we would need outside sources or investors. And it’s been fine. Depending on how we decide to grow, we might need to get funding. But it hasn’t been a speed bump for us as far as the money aspect.
PYMNTS: Walk us through the interface. How does it work from each side of the market?
MR: Teams and leagues go on the site and select that they need a ref. They enter their information as far as the sport, their location, the date of the event, the skill level of the players and how many referees they need. Once that’s completed, it’s sent out, and referees receive a request.
But before the referees receive the request, they obviously need to go online and sign up. Once they’re signed up, they enter the sport of their preference, and they can select multiple sports. They also select if they’re certified or not. One of the things that we’ve done is, if someone doesn’t have previous experience refereeing, we have referees that will provide training. So, once the referee is vetted and they’re on the platform, when the requests start to come in, the referees in that area can go on and see the games that are available. They can select and put themselves into the slots for those games.
The requester can pre-pay when they book the referee, and then, the referee can be paid by direct deposit, by check or PayPal. It’s aimed at the gig economy.
PYMNTS: What does the “Uber of X” trend mean to you?
MR: I think one word that really hits me is “freedom.” The ability to essentially work in your free time. It allows people to work when they want to work and go along their way, earning spending bucks or more.
PYMNTS: Can you share a hurdle or two about the startup experience?
MR: In the beginning, we had a lot of requests that came in, and we were not able to fulfill them in a 24-hour window. So, if somebody had reached out today about a game tomorrow, our database wasn’t big enough just yet to fulfill the requests that quick. We needed three to four days to find and vet the referees.
People cancelling last minute is the other issue. I’m not sure if it’s the generation that we live in, but a lot of youth will call within a half hour or a hour saying something about their car or their family. We tried to avoid that because we have a hard time filling that referee spot, and that harms the image of our brand. Right now, they don’t get penalized for cancelling, but they will once our platform launches and the system gets more streamlined.
PYMNTS: Where do you see the referee industry headed in terms of technology?
MR: I think there will be more competitors coming out in the next year. It’s an industry that needs a change and to be shaken up. The referee associations are very old-school, and I think the technology will help streamline the process. Hopefully, the shortage of referees will decrease. The sports industry is growing, and adults especially are getting together after work, getting their coworkers to play, and referees are needed. It’s just the problem we’re trying to solve.