Working as a referee can be a good side job for those starting out and a lucrative gig at higher levels.
Before Plant City Family YMCA Executive Director Zach Hilferding went full-time with his current position, he spent years refereeing sporting events and worked with people who made it as far as college sports and the NBA’s G-League. He hopes to see more young people get involved with officiating and is willing to help make it happen.
How did you get your start?
I started when I was in my late twenties, maybe closer to 30. With the YMCA, we got to partner with the (Sarasota) basketball association. That’s how I got to know those guys. Little did I know, I had a chance to make a little bit of dollars. It was a nice little side job. My grandmother told me one time to stop acting like a kid and that I would never make money with basketball. I didn’t make it to Europe and play like I was hoping I could, but then I turned it and flipped it into a part-time job where I did make money. It can become a very lucrative part-time job for somebody. For kids in high school it can be their full-time job and they can go season to season.
Who would you recommend this job to?
It’s a great job for somebody who’s 16 or older. If you’re good, you never know what opportunities will be available. I watched a young man named Johnny Atanasov, he made three, four thousand dollars in his first season because your availability’s wide open. You can do three games right in a row. That’s a heck of a great day for a young person. You’re out there learning customer service, conflict management, conflict resolution, think on your feet, live by the black and white rules and have a good time. I think it teaches a lot of life skills and management skills, as well. You’re supposed to be in charge of the game and you have to make sure everything’s in a good flow, limited injuries, limited attitude, stuff like that.
People don’t often realize how difficult the job is, do they?
A lot of times, it’s very intimidating. People think it’s easy. Everybody thinks reffing’s easy. Me too. I was the first person to admit the reason I am here is because I did not like referees. I thought they did a very poor job and I thought that I could do better. I think it’s a young ego-filled thought process, but when you come from playing the game, that’s how you feel about referees. “How could you miss him slapping me on the arm? It was pretty obvious because I felt it, hard.” Then you go and referee, and that swipe comes so fast I can’t tell if that person was hit or not. We all miss calls. That’s part of it. But your attitude and your effort can be seen by a lot of people.
Which sport is looking for the most referees, as far as you know?
Soccer is huge. They need soccer officials. Soccer is much harder because people are more intimidated to be on that gigantic field and only have one official with two sideline officials. Being a referee is very stressful. On a soccer field you have to see more, it’s very fast-moving.
What’s one of the toughest parts of the job?
I did officiate high school football. The first position they put you in is at sideline official on either the home or guest side, therefore you’re right in the ear of the coach. I can’t judge on their hundred-year tactics, but then again, if you can take a coach yelling at you and still progress, you’ve got a pretty strong backbone. That was very neat, but because I didn’t grow up playing football, it was much harder for me to pick it up.
What kind of personality do you need to have?
Once you get to the next level you need dynamics on a referee crew. You need an introvert, an extrovert and a “professor.”
Is there a big advantage in having played sports before officiating them?
I feel that we need more young kids that played the sport to referee those sports. I feel like I had a slight edge because I played so many years of basketball…I knew what players were going to do before they would do it. I knew the tricks of the bumps, touches and run-bys, tips of the elbow and stuff like that — I kind of had an idea of what would happen because I knew what I would do in those situations and I had also been in those situations. I don’t want to discourage a young person who doesn’t play sports, but if they have an idea that they want to be an official, you’d better go play that sport at least for fun.
You’ve worked with kids at the Y who went on to have success in the field. How do kids get their foot in the door with their local Y or referees’ association?
They first stepped up to the plate. These kids were in the gym already, shooting around in open gym. They came to me and said, “Can we help referee kids’ basketball games? We’d like to help.” The biggest thing I tell people is you’ve got to come out of your comfort zone and say, “Hey, can I?” When you start feeling confident about yourself you study it, you take it serious, you start getting better. You try to give it your all. You show up to camps, you show up to meetings. Come in, get involved, be involved. West Coast Officials Association in Tampa is a bigger one. Durant, Plant City, Strawberry Crest games are officiated by the WCOA. You have to not be scared to show up. You have to not be afraid to go in and talk to somebody. If you have interest, I am open. Feel free to email me (zach.Hilferding@TampaYMCA.Org). One of the things I love is the fact we’ve been able to teach kids what opportunities are out there. If kids do take it and run with it, good things can happen.
What do referees do when they’re not working a game?
Refereeing requires time and commitment and weeklong camps, but I leave and drive my own vehicle and arrive to the game. I’m in, I’m out, I get paid, I enjoy it, I have a good time. I still have to break down film. A lot of people will stop to eat for half an hour and break down film, or it’s definitely the next day. Many of us have had so many long phone calls after games are over about one or two situational calls. “What would you do here? What did you see? Here’s what I thought I saw. What was your angle?”