Sports are everywhere in today’s culture. The countless memories that they provide are far-reaching and impact much of how we choose to focus our attention. They serve not only as a driving force of dynamic entertainment, but they also offer a way to shape values and mold future generations. Sports have to start somewhere. Like most lifelong endeavors, the best place to begin is at the youth level.
As a kid, you may think there isn’t much to starting a sports league or organizing an official game. You need the proper field, the equipment, and teammates to play with and a team to play against. Yet, what is stopping these complex operations from turning to absolute mayhem? A referee.
In the United States, there are over 100 million amateur sporting events every year that rely on referees to do their job of maintaining order. Be that as it may, the lack of convenience and active available officials are threatening the sports landscape across the world. Referees are oft-forgotten within the structure of sports, particularly at the youth level. That is, until they are thrust into the spotlight on the receiving end of verbal — and worst case, physical — abuse from a host of players and even parents.
Until recently, referees have had to weather these harsh conditions, in addition to inadequate pay and difficulty finding consistent work in less-organized associations. They’re still waiting weeks, sometimes months, to get paid, haven’t had a reliable platform to increase advancement opportunities and offer feedback from their experience directly to the organization.
Founded in 2017 by Oliver Barton, Whistle serves aspiring referees and established sports organizations twofold: Referees are able to select preferences such as sport to officiate, distance to event, and days available in order to maximize their official ratings and build their pedigree. In turn, organizers are able to easily create upcoming events, manage officials’ schedules, rate referee performances, and ultimately expand their officiating network for future events.
“Similar to everyday apps like Lyft and Uber, Whistle allows for both parties [referees and organizations] to rate each other in order to produce a better environment for everybody involved,” said Barton. “This is especially helpful for both experienced and inexperienced referees as they will have the ability to raise issues, as well as see if there is a prior history of abuse at certain leagues or tournaments.
Barton’s inspiration for Whistle was originally forged in the United Kingdom. He grew up playing soccer throughout his childhood and into adolescence. The sport was a vital part of the culture then and still is today as over 50,000 referees are needed to officiate Sunday league games throughout the country on a weekly basis. One incident that helped to forge Barton’s appreciation for officials came as his identity within the sports landscape was taking place.
“My first encounter with what referees have to go through occurred when I was 12 years old,” recalled Barton. “My brother, who was 14 at the time, attended one of my games that ended controversially. After the match concluded, he yelled abuse at the referee and was promptly banned from playing for a portion of games. Upon returning, he never talked back to referees again.”
Upon immigrating to the United States in 2016 after meeting his wife, Barton’s perspective of sports was further widened. He noted a system where the sports-participation rate was far more expansive than the United Kingdom, and even Europe, yet the alarming shortage of officials dominated headlines. That’s when he gave birth to Whistle and set out on his vision to make sports officiating universally accessible to everybody.
In October 2017, Los Angeles-based Hickory VC helped to jumpstart the company with pre-seed funding. Early investors Chris Webb and Jake Ireland, both of whom played college basketball, saw Whistle as a solution that the sports world desperately needs.
“What stood out to us about Whistle was the untapped and overlooked global officiating market they were going after,” said Ireland, Hickory VC Managing Partner. “The lack of accessible, quality sports officials has impacted each and every one of us in some way (whether as a fan, participant, coach or parent), and this worsening problem has major ramifications for sports participation at all ages. Whistle is the solution the sports world desperately needs. If we stick to the game plan and continue to execute, we’ll be the industry leader in the not so distant future.”
With the momentum building, Whistle’s soft launch took place in May 2018. Soon after, the partnerships began rolling in. Hoopla, the second largest 3×3 basketball tournament of its kind which hosts 1,000 teams, 4,000 participants, and 900 volunteers, brought on Whistle as Game Official Management Partner. In July of that year, Dean Blandino, FOX Sports’ NFL and college football rules analyst and former NFL SVP of officiating, joined Whistle’s board of directors.
“The passion for officiating and connecting with people in order to improve the officiating space was mutual between Whistle and myself,” said Blandino. “Whistle serves as a win-win for both organizers and officials in helping to provide a sense of quality-control amongst for sports events. The goal is to build a network of referee mentorship and become a one-stop shop for connecting aspiring officials to those who have the experience willing to show them the ropes.”
In September 2018, SportsEngine, an NBC Sports Group company and the leading youth sports technology provider, added Whistle to its online marketplace of sports-related services. This addition allows Whistle to directly integrate its platform of aligning vetted officials directly to the youth sports’ league schedules.
“Adding Whistle to the SportsEngine Marketplace is part of our ongoing commitment to provide value-added benefits, along with a comprehensive suite of solutions, for more than one million youth sports clubs, leagues, governing bodies and associations,” said Rick Ehrman, vice president of corporate development. “Whistle’s partnership is a perfect fit as we continue to find new and innovative solutions that help teams manage and simplify their sports lives.”
Whistle has also expanded its portfolio to older sports enthusiasts. LASportsNet, the largest social sports organization in Los Angeles containing a network of adult, co-ed sports leagues, is just the latest to turn to Whistle as it continues to expand the programs. And today, Whistle announced that it acquired local competitor Rent-A-Ref.
“No one before has truly explored the full potential of utilizing technology to bridge the gap between finding game-ready officials and providing online training and mentoring for less experienced officials,” said Michael Radchuk, founder of Rent-A-Ref and current league and referee development with Whistle. “I strongly believe that this market is very untapped. After speaking with Oliver and the leadership team at Whistle, it was a no-brainer to combine forces.”
With these developments and acquisitions, Whistle still has big plans ahead. With a full launch scheduled for mid-2019, Whistle has currently surpassed 10,000 signups and mobile downloads to date as it now kicks off the formal seed round of financing.
The platform is operated across the country including states such as California, New York, and recently Florida. The future is bright for Whistle and for aspiring officials down the road looking to continue and grow the future participation of sports.