May 17, 2021 at 12:01 am ET
Referees Score High Marks With U.S. Sports Fans in State of Officiating Survey
Nearly half of fans with an opinion said officials “almost always” make the right calls
51% of sports fans with an opinion on MLB officiating said the league’s umpires “almost always” make the right calls, the highest mark among the major U.S. sports.
87% of sports fans with an opinion said leagues generally use instant replay well to ensure the accuracy of calls.
Sports fans were twice as likely to support expansive video review as they were to call for use of replay to be limited.
Being an official in major professional or college sports is among the industry’s most thankless jobs. Referees and umpires are rarely praised for making the right call, but draw boos from fans for every mistake and, in some cases, for making the correct call in favor of the opposing team.
When emotions aren’t running quite as high, however, most U.S. sports fans trust officials to get it right more often than not.
A Morning Consult poll conducted May 4-7 found that the majority of U.S. sports fans are at least somewhat confident in referees and umpires to make the correct calls, enforce the rules consistently and act impartially and with integrity. The survey asked about officiating in seven popular U.S. team sports — college basketball, college football, MLB, MLS, the NBA, the NFL and the NHL — and found only minute differences between the public’s confidence in each of them.
Nine in 10 sports fans who offered an opinion about officiating performance said sports officials make the right calls “almost always” (48 percent) or “sometimes” (44 percent). Only 8 percent of sports fans with an opinion said officials make the right calls “rarely” or “almost never.”
Self-identified avid sports fans with an opinion on officiating were even more confident in officials, with 54 percent saying they “almost always” make the right calls and another 39 percent saying they get it right “sometimes.”
The seven sports included in the survey all scored similarly among sports fans. At least 81 percent of fans with an opinion of officials in each sport said they either “almost always” or “sometimes” make the correct calls.
Fifty-one percent of sports fans with an opinion of MLB umpires said they “almost always” make the right calls, the highest share among the seven sports, followed by the NFL (47 percent) and NHL (46 percent). By comparison, 41 percent of fans with an opinion of MLS officials said they “almost always” make the right calls, the lowest share of the included sports.
The 1,536 self-identified sports fans polled — as well as the subsamples of fans with an opinion on officiating performance for each sport — carry a margin of error of 3 percentage points.
The vast majority of sports fans said the rules in each of the seven sports are enforced either “very” or “somewhat” consistently. MLB also scored the highest marks in this category, with 86 percent of sports fans with an opinion saying baseball’s rules are enforced consistently, including 39 percent who said enforcement is “very” consistent.
Similarly, the majority of sports fans said they are either “very” or “somewhat” confident that officials in each sport will act with integrity and impartiality. Eighty-one percent of sports fans with an opinion expressed confidence in the ethics of NHL officials, the highest mark in this category, including 32 percent who said they were “very” confident.
Generally speaking, those who identified as “avid” fans of a particular sport were more likely than the average sports fan to trust officials to make the correct calls, enforce the rules consistently and to do their jobs impartially.
Contrarily, individuals who said they bet on sports were more likely than the average sports fan to say that officials in each sport “rarely” or “almost never” make the right calls and less likely to express confidence in their consistency or integrity. About half of bettors, however, said the increased legalization of sports gambling has increased their confidence in the integrity and impartiality of officiating, compared with roughly 1 in 5 who said the opposite.
Despite their confidence in officials on a range of criteria, roughly 4 in 5 sports fans with an opinion said they tend to influence the outcome of games, including 34 percent who said they influence the results “a lot.” Fans pointed to the NFL as the sport in which officials have the most influence on results, with 81 percent saying they influence outcomes at least somewhat and 41 percent saying referees have a lot of influence on outcomes.
On the subject of video review, 87 percent of sports fans with an opinion said sports leagues generally use instant replay well to ensure the accuracy of calls, including 33 percent who said leagues use replay “very well.”
The NFL, NHL and college football each received positive feedback on their use of replay from at least 84 percent of fans with an opinion on each of the sports. Forty-one percent of those with an opinion on NFL’s use of replay said the league does “very well,” the largest share among the seven sports.
In general, sports fans were twice as likely to favor leagues using replay as often as possible to make more accurate calls than to say leagues should limit the use of replay to maintain the flow of a game.
Correction: A chart headline in a previous version of this story mischaracterized the share of sports fans who believe MLB umpires “almost always” make the right calls.