Sports fans often have a love or hate relationship with the referees that work professional games in the NFL, FIFA, and MLB — but what about those that oversee your child’s little league games?
Brendan Szulik and his co-founder Daniel Caldwell first came across quality and representation issues within the sports official industry while at an amateur baseball game for Szulik’s little brother.
“The umpire was terrible and it really ruined the game for the players and the fans,” says Szulik. “Daniel said, ‘how did this guy get here?’ It became this great question of who are these referees, how do they get booked, and how do they get paid?”
Every year over 100 million amateur games are played in fields across the country, with organizations spending upwards of $12 billion annually to pay sports officials. The demographic of the average official is mid-50s, white and male, with less than 10 percent women in the industry, according to the National Association of Sports Officials.
Szulik and Caldwell conducted discovery firsthand, actually becoming sports officials to investigate the process. From booking and quality to payment, they noted several red flags and inefficiencies that could be solved by injecting technology.
“This is a space that needs positive change that is quite antiquated, inefficient, and oftentimes corrupt and nepotistic,” says Szulik. “There’s a lot of favoritism and unconscious bias in these old boys networks. We wanted to level the playing field.”
Now-CEO Szulik founded Silbo, a digital marketplace that directly connects amateur sports referees with game providers.
“It costs hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars for parents to put their kids into athletics these days as they see improvements in child development, schooling, and access to scholarships. When it comes to officiating, a sports official has a large bearing on how an athlete performs and the scholarships they receive,” says Szulik.
Any amateur game provider can post the available gig on the Silbo app, along with the offered wage and experience required. The platform currently focuses on amateur games for 8-12 year olds across the sports spectrum, from flag football to soccer to baseball.
The referees are vetted by the Silbo team prior to joining the platform to verify their experience, previous training, and references. Once approved, the app’s artificial intelligence engine matches them to jobs based on their experience, location, and preferences. They can also view the full job feed and their gig schedule all within the app.
Another benefit of the AI component of the platform is pulling data from referee interactions.
“We’re able to find a referee’s overall reliability and their overall score as a referee, not necessarily based on whether they call balls and strikes properly, but what their peers think about their approachability, which really matters in recreational youth and adult sports games,” says Szulik.
Following the game, the officials get paid immediately as opposed to waiting up to three months for payment in check form.
The current system works through assigners and booking agents who holds the “rolodex” of potential hires — and may blacklist referees who aren’t available for a particular job and ban them from working with other agents, says Szulik.
“Through marketing and outreach and leveling the playing field, anyone who is qualified can work the game… there’s no inherent bias in the middleman,” he says.
The platform charges a subscription service fee for game providers and a transaction fee taken out of the wages that get paid. They have almost 2,000 sports officials live on the platform with high retention rates, with hundreds of games booked so far.
Silbo is available in five states right now, with the team eyeing another 10 by the end of the year. They closed a $1.3 million seed round last year to aid in that market expansion and continue their acquisition of both game providers and sports officials.
“You have these men and women out there who are sacrificing their time for relatively low wages because they care about the kids and the world of sports and athletics. Through technology, we’re able to improve these experiences and their lives,” says Szulik.