The Role of the Referee Manager

By Dr Tom Webb

The Role of the Referee Manager

Referee Managers operate in a complex, multifaceted and fluid environment. Without these managers or leaders referees would lack direction and training and also referee recruitment and development would suffer, because Referee Managers do not just operate at one level of the game. The job role is often split between different individuals, depending on the level of the game in focus. For example, some Referee Managers concentrate on those referees who operate at the elite level of the game and others focus on the grassroots or mass participation game and the development of referees therein. This article is interested predominantly in those individuals who operate in the elite game, and often across countries.

Elite football referees can be considered as a unique group of sportspeople. They do not train or prepare for matches as a ‘team’ for periods of any month, they also do not work or train in the same place as others within the ‘team’. In fact, elite referees more often than not train and prepare remotely. Given these aspects of their day to- day working life, elite referees require effective management and leadership, clear objectives and also a functioning and successful support system around them to facilitate their training, preparation and performance. All overseen by the Referee Manager.

The results-driven, highly financed world of football means an added pressure and increased attention trained upon these elite referees and the decisions they make during the course of competitions. A referees’ decision can affect the outcome of a given match, and also potentially, the course of a season for a player, coach or team. Given the wealth that now exists within the English leagues as well as European and international competition, the professional conditions that referees operate within are of critical importance in order to adequately prepare referees for the requirements and demands of their role. This preparation and performance is overseen by a Referee Manager. But, for these individuals to be able to manage the elite referees proficiently there is an understandable reliance on technological support.

There is considerable importance placed on the use of technology over geographical distance and given the dispersed nature of the elite referee groups in any given country, there is also a strong emphasis and requirement for inspirational leadership and management. The organisation of this group of athletes, the structure of their training and the supporting systems, such as the use of ICT and specifically tailored physical preparation and recovery programmes in particular, all designed and delivered to ensure that referees receive the best training in spite of the geographical constraints placed upon them.

Also of importance to Referee Managers, particularly those at confederation (UEFA for example) level and within FIFA, is the concept of culture and the impact of different cultures working and training together, when trying to standardise training and performance of elite referee groups. Clearly culture as a concept is more of a challenge for those Referee Managers who work with referees from different countries. Culture is a concept that is often discussed within football, but rarely defined. Does culture change between countries, leagues or competitions for example? Do referees have to alter their approach dependent on the competition and the different application of the Laws of the Game?

Significant differences can exist between cultures, which affect referee preparation, performance and training, and therefore, by association, training composition and delivery for the elite referees. These cultural variations can also impact upon relationships within the elite referee group and, therefore, the provision of mentoring-based relationships can be advantageous, and something that that might be implemented by referee managers or leaders. The effectiveness of mentoring is varied and often depends on the individuals involved in the relationship, and the management of the process by those in charge. If the process is not overseen effectively, challenges become evident within the organisation and overall implementation of mentoring as a development tool for referees. Managers must understand fully the challenges associated with mentoring and the negative impact that unsuccessful mentoring relationships can have upon individuals.

Elite referee groups are distinctive in terms of the training and the performance expected. In some respects, these referees are subject to the same conditions and requirements as other geographically dispersed groups or teams, such as in business corporations for example and yet, on the other hand, their working conditions and the fields that they operate within are very distinctive. Despite the Referee Managers, trainers and support staff, self-regulation is a necessary skill for elite referees. Due to the disparate nature of the group and the working structures that they operate within, the ability to be self-regulatory is essential. Ensuring that this is facilitated and managed effectively is an essential skill for the Referee Manager.

Therefore, due in part to the aspects identified here, the importance of effective leadership and management is essential for the optimum preparation and performance of elite referees. And with the demands now placed on these elite referees, the changing landscape in which they operate, the significance of inspirational leadership and strong management will unavoidably continue to become an integral aspect of the growing support network for referees.


Dr Tom Webb, Coordinator of the Referee and Match Official Research Network, Senior Lecturer Sports Management and Development, School of Sport, Health and Exercise Science, University of Portsmouth, UK. 

This article is based on research conducted across refereeing for a publication in the Managing Sport and Leisure journal by Dr Tom Webb and colleagues. Full details are below:

Webb, T., Wagstaff, C. R. D., Rayner, M., & Thelwell, R. (2016). Leading elite association football referees: Challenges in the cross-cultural organization of a geographically dispersed group. Managing Sport and Leisure, 21(3), 105-123.


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