On-Court Headsets for NBA Referees Might be Coming

Most of the attention in the NBA right now is focused off the court, as NBA teams and free agents continue to negotiate. Recently, though, we saw the start of actual play in the NBA summer leagues, where the new arrivals included Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow–and some new tech for the refs.

This summer, NBA referees are experimenting with Bluetooth-esque wireless headsets to quickly communicate with each other across the court. The headsets, which were first tested in the D-League this spring, also allow the three-man crew to confer with an outside reviewer–this summer, that’s a courtside ‘sideline supervisor’, but down the road the headsets could provide instant contact with the NBA’s replay center in Seacaucus, N.J.

Veteran NBA referee Scott Foster, who served as a sideline supervisor during testing in the D-League, had good things to say about the referee headsets in an interview with NBA.com:

“[We can] hear them talking to one another and can understand when they’re telling one another, ‘Hey, I’m watching the ball right now.’ It’s easier, it’s better than having them screaming across the floor. […] We’ll be able to communicate in loud arenas in critical situations during live play. We’ll be able to make sure the entire crew is at a higher level of concentration.”

As it turns out, though, the NBA is somewhat late to the game when it comes to testing referee headsets. The NFL, as you may recall, provided wireless headsets to on-field officials starting last fall, though their impact was a bit overlooked amid the megahype for the sideline Surface tablets. The NHL tested wireless communication for its referees as early as 2011, but ultimately chose not to move forward; off-ice headsets are instead used for reviewing goals. The MLB uses a similar system to handle instant replay.

One referee who tested the NHL’s system pointed out a few of the cons, including volume calibration (if a referee blows his whistle next to his mike, you can imagine the other refs would pick it up a little loud) and physical issues caused by the headset itself:

“[I]t blocks your hearing on one side. There was one time where a player came out of the penalty box and I couldn’t hear him coming, and he almost ran me over.”

Not to mention, of course, the problems with interference that any wireless headset could have, as has been known to happen with quarterback helmet receivers in the NFL.

So should we expect any huge referee communication developments in the major leagues? Probably not for the MLB — tradition aside, there just isn’t as much need for umpires to confer mid-play as there is elsewhere — though it wouldn’t be surprising to see the NHL give it another go. And of course, the jury’s still out on the NBA experiment. Though there has been discussion of introducing referee headsets in the NBA regular season as soon as 2015-16, no formal announcement has yet been made.

(Image via Keith Allison)

Brice lives in the Washington, DC area, where he does communications for linguistics and space exploration organizations. Brice has previously written for Ars Technica, Discovery News and the Winston-Salem Journal. He's on Twitter at @KilroyWasHere.

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8 years ago

I would like to see this work in a league that has less of a referee corruption issue. As much as I like the idea, I think this also makes it easier for the refs to collude to make calls based on the money that they put on the game instead of what is actually happening on the floor.