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Umpires in New York: NFL, NBA, MLS and the marathon

Nick Foot in action at the New York Marathon
The AFL field umpires were in New York for a week for a professional development tour ahead of the commencement of their pre-season training. They observed match officials from all major US sports leagues and undertook other activities while there. Nick Foot kept a diary for AFL.com.au 

Day 1, Sunday November 2:
As an AFL field umpire, boarding a plane to New York City for a professional development tour doesn't quite seem like standard practice. However, 29 field umpires along with the AFL umpiring department are calling the hustle and bustle of Manhattan's Times Square our home for the next week, with an ambition to learn from our American counterparts at the elite level of their chosen sports.

We will also be getting out into some local New York neighborhoods to undertake some personal development activities.

The coveted New York City Marathon took place today. It is hard to fathom just how big this race is and I was fortunate enough to gain a start along with fellow umpires Leigh Fisher and Brendan Hosking. Umpires manager Wayne Campbell even managed to wipe the cobwebs off his '97 Nike's and make it to the start line on Staten Island.

The build up to the day and the atmosphere throughout the run is like no other, and with more than two million spectators spanning across the five boroughs of New York City for the entire 42km trip, it made it near impossible to pick out any of the "study group" who made it out of bed to offer their support. Leigh took home the chocolates for our boys running, a very tidy 2 hours 58 minutes.

Later that night dinner took place at Buddakan in Chelsea's Meat Packing District and was the first time the group came together in the 'Big Apple' to discuss the upcoming itinerary. Fortunately, I copped the front row seat of the Campbell v Hosking clash, which involved Campbell continually reminding Hosking of his head to head victory in the marathon earlier that day.
 
Day 2:
Today shifted up a gear as we headed to MetLife Stadium to see the Indianapolis Colts take on the New York Giants.
 
NFL officiating representative Jay Reid played tour guide for the evening and gave us a great behind the scenes look at how the NFL officiating system operates, with particular focus on the new video review system that has been implemented.
 
I couldn't help but draw comparisons between the NFL video review system and the AFL's current score review system. The NFL operates a central hub for all video reviews from its office in New York City with footage streamed live to the hub from games all over the country. In addition, the video review officials are all former NFL referees.
 
Once we arrived at MetLife we headed down to ground level and met with the seven officials for the upcoming game. The seven men in charge are assigned to the same team right through the season with an aim to improve synergy and consistency in overall performance.
 
Depending on age and performance, these teams can remain together for several for seasons; however, the best individual referees are then selected for the playoffs.
 
The age of the NFL referees range from 35 to 65. By contrast, Shane McInerney, at 45, is our oldest umpire. The average age of our umpires next season will be 32.7.
 
Day 3:
After a group visit and morning tea at the Australian Consulate General in midtown Manhattan it was time for the group to get into NBA mode as we boarded the bus to Secaucus, New Jersey to visit NBA HQ.
 
On arrival we were directed through to the NBA Replay Centre, a room consisting of 14 stations with multiple LCD's setup at each, allowing video review officials to cover every angle of every game simultaneously.
 
Common decisions reviewed in NBA games are potential three-pointers, buzzer beater shots and out of bounds calls. After trialing the replay equipment for ourselves the unreal experience continued at Madison Square Garden as the NBA hosted us in a sky lounge for the Washington Wizards v New York Knicks game.
 
Throughout the game we observed the way the NBA referees positioned themselves as a team and drew links on how we could improve our current system, keeping in mind we operate in a larger space with more players to watch.
 
Unlike the NFL, the NBA has 63 full-time referees with the top guys working 75 out of the 82 scheduled games in a season.
 
With so many games in a season, it makes sense for the referees to be full time as they are constantly traveling the country, while the longevity of a career is also far greater due to the lack of physical demands.
 
The longest serving referee in NBA history, Dick Bavetta, retired in August this year after officiating in a lazy 2635 consecutive games since his debut in 1975, a phenomenal effort to never miss an assigned game. It's comforting to think that I only have 115 AFL seasons to go to break Dick's officiating record.
 
A number of us had the opportunity to visit the officiating rooms prior and post game to see how the refs prepare and analyze the game. The setup is not too dissimilar to ours, with the refs coming together as a team prior to the game to discuss possible match-ups and set plays, while afterwards they conduct an analysis of certain decisions through vision provided by coaches.

NBA ref Dick Bavetta officiated in a staggering 2635 consecutive games. Picture: Getty Images


Day 4:
Yet another change of sporting codes landed us on the front door step of Major League Soccer's building located in the heart of Manhattan on Fifth Avenue.
 
Peter Walton, the general manager of the Professional Referee Organization and former English Premier League referee, met with us to provide an insight into the day-to-day life of a MLS referee.
 
There are 10 full-time refs, 10 part-time refs and a host of individual contractors that make up the PRO roster each season, all based across different parts of the country. The coaching model used in the MLS is an interesting one; the full-time referees have 18 three-day camps in either Dallas or Salt Lake City over the course of a season, with the part-timers only attending 10 of these, a concept that no doubt allows the best to get better.
 
Although the MLS competition is no EPL or La Liga, the PRO rate their referees up there with the world's best, which was showcased at the 2014 FIFA World Cup when the US refereeing team made it through to the knock out stage of the tournament.
 
From the MLS we took a short walk uptown to NFL headquarters, where we were guided through the hall of Super Bowl rings and into the Command Centre, that not only sounds like a place where rockets are launched, but looks like one too.
 
The NFL review system is next level compared to any other code I have seen. Every game is intensely monitored by a replay technician and every instant replay call is determined by the NFL's vice president of officiating, Dean Blandino.
 
At the front of the command centre there is a round table dedicated solely to live social media updates, keeping fans at home in the loop with what the replay technicians are monitoring.
 
Day 5:
Today we got the opportunity to get our hands dirty by working with the DOE fund of New York on the streets of Manhattan.
 
The DOE fund is a nonprofit organization that provides paid transitional work, housing and career training to people with a history of homelessness, incarceration and substance abuse. We were fortunate enough to work with some of the guys from the Ready, Willing and Able program that have fallen on hard times and are making a fresh start in life.
 
The program lasts between nine and 12 months with a vision for the graduates to attain full-time jobs, housing and sobriety. The work these guys undertake isn't pretty and we got to find that out first hand by helping them with their daily routine of sweeping streets and emptying bins, which was something well out of our comfort zone.
 
I was buddied up with Jovan from the Bronx who has recently joined the program, he has already found his own place for his wife and daughter and who hopes to operate his own property maintenance business when he graduates. It was great to see all the boys putting in a tough days work, although the well-moisturized hands of Brett Rosebury were not sighted until we got back to the team bus. The DOE fund has given tens of thousands of individuals the tools to rebuild their life and currently serve over 700 individuals on a daily basis.
 
After a busy few days observing and visiting different sporting codes, there are a couple of concepts I feel we can implement into our game to reduce error rate and make match day run smoother. Having an additional on-field umpire or utilizing our emergency umpire in a more prominent role would assist with decisions being made under less duress.
 
The player to referee ratio in US sports is approximately 3-1, whereas in the AFL we operate at 12-1 with a much larger playing surface to cover.
 
Communication with fans is also an area that can be improved upon; during an NFL review the referee is able to give live feedback to the crowd on what is being reviewed, reducing confusion and unrest amongst supporters at the ground.