Without independent and unbiased officials and officiating, any sport would fall into disarray. While the crucial role played by sports officials is widely acknowledged, there has been little research other than anecdotal about how sports officials are perceived by the general public. A mail survey was sent to a random sample of 1800 New Zealanders drawn from the Electoral Roll to determine their overall opinion of sports officials, their performance on the field, the influence they have over the outcome of the game, and whether they should be held accountable for their decisions. Respondents were also asked the sources they used to obtain their sports information and the level of abuse faced by sports officials. A total of 692 valid questionnaires were processed for an effective response rate of 40%. Not surprisingly, respondents indicated Rugby, Netball, Cricket and Soccer as the Top Four Favourite Sports.
The aim of this research was to examine the New Zealand general public’s perceptions of New Zealand sports officials. A mail survey was judged to be the most appropriate method to elicit the broadest range of respondent input.
Academic and practitioner sources were reviewed to determine whether a survey of general public perceptions of sports officials had been conducted elsewhere, allowing for replication in New Zealand. As such a survey had not previously been attempted, published studies investigating officiating performance, effectiveness and stressors were reviewed to identify key themes. Questions were then developed based on the key themes with input from a range of New Zealand sports officials.
Survey questions focused on respondents’ overall opinion of officials, effectiveness characteristics and competency, influence over sports outcomes and accountability, acceptability of abuse of officials, and sources of sport information. The completed 8 page questionnaire was field tested with representatives of the general public and a range of New Zealand sports officials and administrators.
A sample of 1800 New Zealand residents was randomly selected from the 2008 New Zealand electoral roll of all eligible voters over the age of eighteen. Those over the age of 75 or residents in retirement homes, hospitals or prisons were identifi ed, excluded and replaced in the sample.
The mail survey was conducted in compliance with Massey University Ethics guidelines and followed accepted research protocols for confidentiality in general public mail surveys.
The questionnaire package included a cover letter, questionnaire and reply paid envelope. The cover letter was produced on Massey University letterhead, contained the required Massey University Ethics statement, explained how respondents were selected and emphasised that all responses were confidential. The cover letter explained that the research was only about sports that have sports officials (referees, umpires or judges) such as rugby, netball or cricket. This was further emphasised at the beginning of the questionnaire.
The questionnaire package was mailed to respondents on March 26, 2008. One reminder was sent on April 14, 2008 along with a replacement questionnaire and reply paid envelope. The survey was closed on May 15, 2008.
A total of 83 questionnaires were returned undeliverable (gone, no address) or were ineligible (deceased). A total of 692 valid questionnaires were processed for an effective response rate of 40%, a respectable response rate for a special interest research study conducted in a public forum. Interestingly, 40 surveys were returned with respondents indicating they had no interest at all in sport.
Data was analysed for the sample as a whole, by demographic characteristics, respondent’s stated ‘favourite sport’, level of interest in their favourite sport, and level of involvement in sport.
Please note that only key findings are reported and comments made where notable differences were found. All differences presented are statistically significant at the 95% confi dence level. All findings however should be treated as indicative rather than conclusive.
The main limitation of this research is that it is based on a self-completion survey. Consequently, it is dependent on respondents answering the questions as intended.
Overall Opinion of Sprts Officials
Overall, two-thirds of respondents expressed positive opinions of sports offi cials, most notably for fans of Cricket. The more passionate the individual was about their favourite sport, the more positive their opinion of sports officials.
Performance on the Field
Respondents felt officials’ understanding of the rules of the game and their consistent application were more important to effective offi ciating than other characteristics such as maintaining control over both the game and players.
When asked to rate the performance of the main official in a recent game of their favourite sport, respondents gave overall high ratings. The more positive respondents’ opinion of offi cials was generally, the higher the rating. However, the main offi cial in Rugby was rated substantially lower than their counterpart in Cricket when it came to understanding and application of the rules of the game.
Influence and Accountability
Almost one third of respondents felt that sports offi cials exerted too much infl uence over the outcome of the game. Direct involvement in sport as a player, administrator or offi cial served to amplify the belief that officials may be exerting more infl uence than acceptable.
The general public expected Professional sports offi cials to be more accountable for their decisions than their Amateur counterparts. Respondents believe both Professional and Amateur offi cials, if to be held accountable, should primarily be accountable to those directly involved in the sport (players and coaches) rather than spectators and the media.
Sources of Sports Information
Respondents took more notice of information sources closely involved in the on-field action (players, coaches and match commentators) and also judged these sources to be the most trustworthy. Rugby coaches were considered significantly more trustworthy than their Cricket, Netball or Soccer counterparts. Little notice was taken of TV sports shows and online social networks and this was also refl ected in the lower degree of trust in these sources.
Respondents relied more on traditional channels for their sports information (television, newspaper and radio), with television being the predominant source.
Abuse faced by Sports Offi ials
Two thirds of respondents felt that abuse of sports officials had increased over the last five years, a view held more strongly by females.
The vast majority of respondents judged a range of abusive behaviours towards officials as unacceptable. Respondents expressed the strongest opinion about the unacceptability of abusive behaviour towards sports officials when that behaviour was directly aimed at the sports offi cial, namely, throwing of objects at officials and verbal abuse of offi cials. Females and Rugby fans had substantially lower levels of tolerance towards abuse directed at sports offi cials. Abuse directed at sports offi cials had a signifi cantly negative effect on respondents’ enjoyment of the game – especially so for females.