tv coverage of referees – the shocking truth

A new survey shows pundits are actually quite nice to the men in the middle.

Watford's Nathan Ake is sent off by referee Anthony Taylor
Referees seeing red Image Picture Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

One of the big complaints about why referees get it wrong is that the media do them no favours. Every penalty and offside decision is analysed endlessly, with pundits mocking the men in the middle every time they can’t spot a handball.

Or so you’d think.

A new survey which has analysed Premier League TV coverage in enormous detail has shown that just ELEVEN PER CENT of comments made by commentators and pundits criticises the ref.

“Negative comments were minimal compared to positive or neutral views, and that was really unexpected”

Furthermore, out of over 2,000 minutes of in-game and post-match coverage across 20 Premier League games shown by Sky Sports and BT Sport, just 37.5 minutes were spent discussing refereeing decisions.

Dr Tom Webb, who carried out the study for The University Of Portsmouth, told Loaded: “The results of our survey were something of a surprise. Most people will be surprised by the statistics. Negative comments were minimal compared to positive or neutral views, and that was really unexpected.”

In total, there were 113 neutral comments along the lines of “The referee gives a free-kick”, accounting for 42% of refereeing discussion. Positive comments (“It looked like handball, but the replay shows the referee was right to wave play on”) accounted for 69 comments (26%), while there were 59 comments (22%) questioning the referee’s decision (“I’m not sure, but I can understand why the ref gave it.”)

Howard Webb, the former referee now on BT Sport
Plenty to smile about Howard Webb, the former ref now helping the media understand decisions on BT Sport. Image Picture Christof Koepsel/Getty Images

That leaves just 29 complaints about referees, or 11%, across the 20 matches analysed by Dr Webb and his team for their survey, Referees And The Media: A Difficult Relationship But An Unavoidable Necessity.

“The pressure referees find themselves under in unprecedented,” says Dr Webb. “Their decisions can be pivotal for a team’s prospects of winning titles, qualifying for Europe or avoiding relegation.

“But the pressure that referees believe they are under isn’t an accurate refelction of the current environment.”

Dr Webb has also analysed television coverage of top-flight games abroad and says our media is much kinder towards referees than in most countries.

“In Italy, they devote entire programmes towards analysing referees’ decisions,” he explains. “Those shows have names like The Trial.”

Although it transpires that referees are treated relatively reasonably by our media, Dr Webb believes there is still a lot of room for improvement in the relationship between the men in the middle and TV companies.

“A number of discussions are required,” says Dr Webb. “Referees need to communicate the reduced pressure we’ve identified.

“The pressure referees believe they are under isn’t an accurate refelction of the truth”

“Also, it helps when referees can explain their decisions. Having a former ref like Howard Webb on BT Sport’s punditry team helps. It helps that he’s a good communicator, because it didn’t quite work when BT Sport initially tried having another ref, Mark Halsey, on their panel.”

Dr Webb also approves of refereeing boss Mike Riley’s decision to increase the number of media sessions where journalists and commentators can attend courses at the referees’ association, PGMOL.

“It used to be that the media only attended one session with PGMOL,” recalls Dr Webb. “This would be at the start of the season. Mike Riley has tried to instigate regular educational sessions so that referees and the media understand where the other is coming from. That can only help the understanding of refereeing decisions.”

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Loaded’s deputy editor John Earls has covered entertainment and sport across a range of national newspapers, plus several football and music magazines, since 1990. Follow him on Twitter at @EarlsJohn

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