NCAA Challenge Review System – A Referee’s Perspective

  0 Kyp Harasymowycz | November 21st, 2017 | ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, College - Women's Indoor, Conference USA, Division I Mid-Major, News, Pac 12

For those of us that study the minutiae of the game, the Challenge Review System, or CRS, has been an integral part of match management, coaching strategy and the need to “get it right”, similar to many other sports. The FIVB has already had CRS for some time at the professional and international level, which includes up 12 high definition cameras with a full CRS review team seated behind the scorer’s table specifically monitored by the second referee. Additionally, both the second and first referees have small touch screen monitors mounted to each pole to see what the CRS sees.

Obviously, this involves a heavy investment that no NCAA program has yet to implement. However, for the conferences that do include CRS, there are a maximum of six cameras with an independent monitoring crew assigned to the match that may or may not have knowledge of what they are looking for, let alone knowledge of the game and its possible actions. This presents a few issues not only with teams that might challenge a call, but for referees responsible for using the CRS in the manner in which it was intended.

So, us volleynerds at VolleyMob decided to go to the source. We interviewed Bill Thornburgh, double national referee (PAVO National and USAV National referee) and FIVB official who has had multiple CRS calls to monitor in different conferences and has seen every possible positive and negative outcome of the CRS. We hit him up with some questions of what we’ve seen, what’s on the horizon, and what possible improvements could come.

VM: For some conferences, this is the first implementation of CRS full-time. How has it been for you as an official?

BT: I’ve really enjoyed it. Some of the other officials were worried that we’d be wrong, and I think it’s more important to get the call right. For me, I see it as an opportunity for coaches and officials to have more interactions and discuss things. For me, it’s been pretty positive. In terms of the purpose of the CRS, it’s not always been positive on how coaches react and how coaches challenge a call. (laughs) For me, it’s fun. I like doing the reviews. I like seeing the angles. All of the calls that they are challenging, I’m there mentally as well, questioning the call, almost wanting them to challenge.

VM: C’mon, coach, do it!

BT: Right! (laughs)

VT: How many different conferences do you see CRS being implemented?

The Big Ten uses it. Some of the schools in the ACC have used it on matches I’ve had. And the SEC. And then the outlier is Miami of Ohio. They use it out of the MAC.

VT: Have you seen changes (from school to school) in the ways some replay techs work with you? Are coaches from conference to conference using the CRS as a delay tactic?

I personally, to address the delay part of the question, I’ve not had a coach challenge something purely as a delay tactic. I have heard of other cases in other matches where coaches will say, “Hey, do I have any timeouts left? No? OK, I guess I’ll challenge that. Clearly, that’s a delay. Luckily, I haven’t had to deal with that. In terms of replay techs, that varies tremendously from school to school. The Big Ten has someone who sits at the monitor. They use DBSports. From school to school it varies. Some techs cue at every third contact, some cue every time the ball crosses the net, some just start the film when the whistle blows and lets it run until the end of the play and you have to search. How good the tech is is really important, because it speeds up the process. When I receive a challenge and I go to the monitor, a really good replay tech already has the situation cued up on the monitor behind me, and we can be done in 30 seconds. All I have to do is adjust the frame-by-frame. In some cases, I’ll be at the monitor for 30-40 seconds not looking at anything yet, just waiting on the tech to get to where the challenge occurred. In most cases like that, you’re not working the editor’s wheel, you’re talking to a producer over a headset. Then the producer talks to the camera people and asking for feeds. In an ideal world, the techs or producers are volleyball savvy.

VT: I was waiting for you to use that phrase.

Oh yes. In watching the play, you should know what’s going to be challenged. Rarely, it’s a mid-rally challenge at the net, but I haven’t had one of those yet. Every challenge I’ve had has been the ending play, or the furthest back I’ve gone has been on a pancake that was on the opposite side of the net. You can also read the crowd, the big gasps, and almost feel like it was close. The coaches jump up. As a producer or tech, let’s be ready for that play. Over time, in seeing more of this, the techs and the producers will improve.

VT: The experience will give them that volleyball savvy.

Sure. Just like an official using the CRS for the first time. You’ll be nervous, have you used the proper verbage, the proper hand signals, and it will take you longer. But as you get into the hundreds and thousands of CRS calls you’ve had to review, you won’t be perfect, but you’ll be much better and much quicker.

VT: In your opinion, what needs improvement going forward?

A combination of things. First, the number of cameras. We’re immediately talking about money. Second, the quality of those cameras. Maybe the lighting of the gym, that makes it easier or harder depending on the school. Once again, it comes down to money. I’ve had some matches where you get the best view of a play, a touch, maybe. The best-case scenario is a TV production. Those are high-level, high quality, multiple angle cameras. When you zoom in, and the picture doesn’t become so pixelated. Those are awesome, but you won’t have those on every match. I’ve had matches where, the line judge made a call, and I say, “Really?” And the challenge occurs, and it’s on the sideline, and it comes back inconclusive. Either the camera placement or the camera quality is poor. Consistency from school to school of camera location, quality, and so forth. For example, the Big Ten has a guide for all the schools as to where the cameras should be, how they should be mounted, where the monitor and editor’s wheel should be at the scorer’s table, and so forth. Some other conferences, even from school to school, you don’t get the same number of cameras, you don’t get the same location of the cameras, you don’t get the same quality, you sometimes don’t even get the same system.

VT: That has to be rough, because now you’re not really looking at every possible angle you can have on a playable surface. You’re looking at “Well, what camera angles do we actually have and can use?”

Yes. And then when we have to go over and communicate to the coaches and say, “Would you like to go over the angles?” They shrug their shoulders and go, “Nah.” The other night, I had a coach that shrugged his shoulders and said, “I don’t care.” It makes me wonder if their experience throughout the season has not been positive, that the angles aren’t enough to matter for that particular point. It’s a courtesy for us to ask if they want to see those angles. I would go to schools and ask how the CRS has worked for them this season. If I knew, as a coach, that every touch call in this particular school came back “inconclusive”, then I wouldn’t waste my challenges on touch calls and focus more on line or net calls.

VT: The tournament is coming up. Some of these schools don’t have any CRS. Now they go to a host site that have CRS. Maybe these coaches aren’t as knowledgeable. Overwhelmed, maybe?

My biased assumption is that if a host school has CRS, they would use it. So, for these schools, let’s just say a Big Ten school has consistent cameras, they travel to an ACC school. It’s going to be different. Let’s say the opposite—that a smaller school comes to a Big Ten site. Now they have access to it. Those coaches would have more questions, would want to see the angles. What calls can be challenged? What’s the zoom feature look like? It adds a different element to the game.

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