NBA summer league referees game-testing use of headsets

LAS VEGAS -- Thirty years after the league first flirted with headset communication for officials, the NBA is once again examining the possibility of utilizing technology to improve on-court interaction among referees.

Building off a test run last year in Vegas as well as in the NBA Development League playoffs this past season, referees in the Orlando, Utah and Vegas summer leagues all game-tested headset communication. Early returns suggest an endeavor that remains in its infancy -- this despite the technological strides made since it was first examined in the 1980s -- but one the league is hopeful could improve the efficiency of officials and the overall flow of games.

Joe Borgia, the NBA's senior vice president of replay and referee operations, stressed that this experiment is in the preliminary stages, but the potential benefits have the league intrigued about the possibility of eventually adopting the technology.

"We're looking at the pros and cons -- and there's a lot of pros, but we're finding out there's also a lot of cons," Borgia said while watching officials test the headsets in Vegas this week. "That's what we're going to have to weigh. A lot of times, because they are voice activated, you're picking up the [in-arena] announcer, and all of a sudden everybody's mic opens up. Or you're a ref and you make the call, you start going to the [scorer's] table, and one of your partners starts talking. All of a sudden it's, 'Oh, is he talking to me?' So there are some distractions.

"You're putting an earpiece in an ear, so you're losing some hearing. Let's not kid each other -- between football, baseball, soccer, we probably have the most communication with players and coaches. They can call a timeout, so now all of a sudden are you losing, what, 40 percent, 50 percent, 60 percent [of hearing in that ear]? Are we going to miss a timeout? ... We are in extremely preliminary stages of testing it."

There have been bumps in the early testing, including static and feedback issues inside some of the smaller gyms used in summer league play, Borgia said. But the on-court officials and the supervisors above them like the possible benefits.

In Vegas, the league even set up a makeshift replay station in one of the locker rooms of the Thomas & Mack Center and simulated how a video review might be handled among on-court officials and those in the league's replay center based in Secaucus, New Jersey.

The league is committed to testing the process and bought custom earpieces for its officials to try out this summer. The improved fit made the microphones less cumbersome to wear, but the snugness also diminished hearing in one ear.

"The one major drawback, which I'm sure could be fixed with the technology we have out there, is it's kind of having swimmer's ear," NBA referee Brent Barnaky said. "And you can't really hear out of one ear. You really need your senses as a referee. You need to be able to hear."

The headsets are a bit jarring at first, Borgia said.

Referees already hear plenty of grief from fans, and they endured plenty of barbs in Vegas for wearing the sort of microphone Britney Spears might employ at her Vegas show.

Borgia said the league will examine more aesthetically pleasing microphones, such as inner-ear monitors worn by musicians and television hosts.

One of Borgia's more pressing concerns is simply how the technology will be received by fans. If referees are changing calls based on private communication -- either among officials on the court or from the league's replay center -- it might not be immediately clear why a call is being overturned or by whom.

If nothing else, the headset trial has delivered immediate benefits, allowing official supervisors to monitor on-court interactions among referees, players, and coaches. It's turned into a valuable teaching tool, which was the main reason the league first tested headsets three decades ago.

One thing is clear: The NBA, especially under the guide of commissioner Adam Silver, desires to be progressive with its thinking and wants to embrace technologies that can make the game better.

"There's positives, and then there are the negatives," Borgia said. "Until [summer league is] over and we get to talk to everybody, I can't tell you where we are on the barometer. But I don't think we're close to doing it in NBA games."

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.