Ignition! (The Other Side of Louisville)

It’s nice that there were a few bits of silliness in Louisville, because otherwise this was a difficult tournament. The actual entries ended up at 2,621, better than the 2,746 entered going in, but still at least 20% bigger than it should have been.

Which was a major contributing factor to the referee unrest that rumbled all weekend.

It started with a couple of Facebook conversations in which a few officials complained about the plan to pay officials their per diem plus lunch money on the first day of the tournament in lieu of the usual catered lunches. That mushroomed into complaints about the change to debit cards instead of checks for paying officials, which mushroomed into rants about continuing dissatisfaction with the Fencing Officials Commission (FOC), the long hours referees are required to work, and the size of our national tournaments.

Some background: The care and feeding of tournament officials (air and ground transportation, housing, meals, honoraria and per diems) comes to between 65% and 75% of the expense of running a national tournament. (Take a look at the financial reports appended to the draft minutes of the November board meeting for the gory details.) The catered lunches alone run to 8–9% of the total, usually $12,000 to $15,000. National events, like every aspect of USFA operations, have had to cut expenses this season to help dig us out of our existing fiscal hole. I’ve hired a couple fewer BC staff for each NAC, travel expenses are more tightly monitored, and the national office decided to experiment with less expensive options for officials’ lunches, too.

In theory, vouchers for officials’ lunches in Milwaukee weren’t entirely a bad idea—the expense was less than half that of the catered lunches, and the concession food was pretty good the last time we were there (that was the NAC where I blogged the grim catered lunches of mostly-tortilla wraps and miniature-body-part pasta salads). Unfortunately, the same menus were not available this season, and we were stuck with the usual hot dog/chicken tenders/french fries/petrochemical-orange nacho sauce selections, which were less than appealing.

Due to the complaints about the vouchers, officials were asked to complete a survey about whether they would prefer vouchers or cash for lunches. While the response was overwhelming in favor of cash, it was only the officials who worked the December NAC who were polled, and the results were not communicated before the plan to pay cash was announced to the January cadre of officials. With the January event as large as it was, officials could anticipate both lunch and dinner from the venue food concessions, an unattractive prospect to most. Hence the relatively public Facebook outrage that turned into talk of a referee boycott that startled and dismayed those who started the discussion. Due to the cancellation of another event, the convention center caterers turned out to have (barely) enough food and staff available, so the national office staff was able to arrange the last-minute switch back to catered lunches.

More background: And then there are the debit cards. The upset about these mystifies me. The idea is that officials are issued debit cards, which they will keep. Every time officials work an event, instead of issuing a check, the USFA will load the appropriate amount onto the debit card; officials can use the card like any other debit card or they can transfer the amount to their own bank account, as they choose. This will significantly reduce staff time spent preparing and distributing checks (and then re-cutting checks that need to be changed or mailing those that weren’t picked up or weren’t cut in the first place because the official was hired after the hiring deadline) and in many cases (like mine) be more convenient than checks, eliminating the need to scan the check or make a trip to the bank in order to deposit. And unlike direct deposit, the debit cards don’t require the USFA to keep records of everyone’s bank information. (Not too surprisingly, there are a few problems with the initial roll-out which still need to be resolved, but I expect those will be cleared up relatively soon.)

Unfortunately, at one of the morning referee meetings where the debit cards were first explained earlier this season, someone joked about them being Walmart gift cards, which eventually became gospel among some officials and grounds for continuing disgruntlement. Suddenly it was common knowledge that officials have not been paid at all for several years and that now we’re all going to be paid in Walmart or Target gift cards that we can’t convert to cash at all. No matter that it wasn’t true—officials were being abused and mistreated, and the time had come to put a stop to it.

So what’s going on? The fuss over officials’ lunches was what I think of as a precipitating event. Our national events have been cruising along—too big, too stressful, too difficult to manage—on officials’ good will for at least the past five years. I’ve warned about the problems with our national tournaments for longer than I’ve been Tournament Committee chair, as have my predecessors and others, but the USFA as an organization has failed to recognize and deal with the problems. So resentment and distrust has built and simmered for years, until the Louisville lunch plans caused a reaction out of all proportion to the specific issue that ignited it.

The frustration and resentment and distrust is legitimate—we are a damaged and injured organization, and it’s going to take a huge amount of work to rebuild the trust that’s been abused for so long. Perhaps it’s only because matters are beginning to improve that the explosion occurred—expectations were lower when we had no hope of change. Now it’s a matter of modulating expectations a bit—we’ve had a new president and CEO for five months now, so why isn’t everything fixed yet?

In a weird way, the rumbling in Louisville seems almost old news to me—some of us BC folks faced a potentially precipitating event last spring. It did not actually occur, but the possibility was serious enough that we spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out how to staff Summer Nationals if it did happen (because some BC volunteers would have quit immediately and others would have waited until after SN was over). Since then, we’ve  begun to see enough progress to be hopeful, but the signs of progress haven’t been communicated clearly enough or widely enough.

And the number of areas that need work is simply daunting. We’ve barely begun on what’s needed.

But we’ve begun.

Lighter Louisville

• Last month I said the day I flew home from Milwaukee was a gorgeous day for flying, but the day I flew out from home to Louisville was even more spectacular—something about the light on the mountains as the sun came up  (and the photos do not do it justice):

• I laughed every time I traversed the passage, instantly labeled the Blue Hallway of Doom, between the fencing hall and the officials’ lunch room. Something about the scale meant that you had to get at least a third of the way through before it looked as though you’d made any progress at all. Eventually, quite a few fencers decided it was a good space for warming up.

Blue Hallway of Doom

• Two different armorer calls on two different days from two different referees: “I’ve got some kind of electrical problem—the fencers on my strip are getting shocks from the equipment.” I asked the armorers later, and they laughed. It seems that people were shuffling on the carpet and then touching the pipe barrier. Apparently, a few individuals from warmer climes didn’t know that cold, dry days could provide the perfect conditions for getting zapped by static electricity.

• A perfect trifecta of error: Fencer brings DE slip to BC. BC staff person checks his name, writes it on her tableau, and gives him the slip for his next bout. A short time later, fencer returns with the slip from that bout. BC staff person records it, and fencer leaves. Then a while after that, fencer comes running back to say his mom looked at the web results, which show the other guy having won that first bout. The computer entry person finds the original DE slip, which, duly signed by both fencer and referee, and recorded incorrectly by the BC person, clearly shows that the other won. BC staff person lectures herself severely, lectures fencer on the importance of reading one’s slip before signing (and allows fencer to lecture her), and sends fencer out to strip to have referee correct her error, too, telling fencer to feel free to lecture referee, too. Results are fixed and everybody is happy. Why is this of note? Because all three individuals should have known better: the fencer was on the Cadet point list, the referee was Sharon Everson, and the BC staff person was me.

• Finally, of course, the Louisville carpet gallery:

Next time: the serious side of Louisville.

Playing With Numbers

In the course of avoiding working on my taxes this morning, I had fun playing around with this season’s national tournament numbers. I’d been struck since I got home from Detroit by the number of comments on Facebook and Fencing.Net about how well run the Detroit NAC was and got to wondering whether most people really understand the reason for the difference between a “well-run” NAC like Detroit and one with jammed-up days and late nights like Milwaukee last November.

So I put together a little spreadsheet with the number of strips, events, days, and individual and team entries for every event so far this season. Then I started looking at the averages (means, that is) to see what I could see.

I looked at “events per day,” which range from 2 individual and 1 team for the December NAC to 10.5 for the October Div. I/Vet in Cincinnati. “Individual fencers per day” is also interesting—the extremes are 217 at the December NAC and 585 for November’s Junior/Cadet/Youth 14 in Milwaukee. While I was at it, I also worked up “fencers per strip” and “fencers per strip per day,” along with the analogous stats for teams.

Neither the number of fencers per day nor the number of events per day correlate well with what I’ll call “perceived difficulty of tournament.” Some NACs, like JOs, are large but have relatively few events, so they aren’t too difficult to run. Other tournaments have both large numbers and a lot of events, so they are far more complicated and stressful.

Looking back at this season so far, the easiest events to run were the December NAC, of course, with only 6 individual events and 3 team events, and this month’s Div 2/3/Vet NAC in Detroit. Neither had painfully tight schedules, and competition ended early enough each day at both that officials (and fencers) could get real meals in restaurants each evening. The most difficult tournaments were the November and January NACs—both lots of large events with large entry numbers, both with very late nights throughout.

“Individual fencers per strip” turned out to correlate perfectly with my “perceived difficulty of tournament”:

  • December NAC: 19.7
  • March NAC: 34.63
  • JOs: 40.1
  • October NAC: 44.8
  • January NAC: 45.47
  • November NAC: 51.98

Once I saw this, of course, I had to run the projected numbers for the April NAC in Portland and for SN in Reno to see what their “fencers per strip” would look like.

Portland, with a schedule similar (fewer but somewhat larger individual events, more teams) to the Detroit NAC, comes up in the same range, 36.02.

And SN? Brace yourself—it’s an impressive 108.84. (And that doesn’t even include teams.)

So then I got to wondering—if we wanted to run SN so that its atmosphere and “perceived level of difficulty” were equivalent to that of the most difficult NAC this season (November, with a “fencers per strip” of 51.98), how many strips would we need instead of the 60–65 we’ll have? 128.

If we wanted a downright comfortable SN, with evenings running no later than 8:00 or 8:30, like Detroit this month, say a “fencers per strip” of 35? That would take 190 strips. I can just imagine the look on Sharon Everson’s face if she were told she needed to hire referees for a 190-strip SN.

Sometimes all you can do is laugh. (And it definitely beats doing taxes.)

Feeding the fencing addiction

It’s been a tough year for the part of me that gets restless when it’s been too long since I’ve worked a fencing tournament. Due to the unfortunate collision of US Fencing finances and my own, this season I’ve only worked one national tournament—NAC D, in San Jose in January, which was even within driving range for me.

So, along with a couple of local fencing mom friends, I’ve got into the habit of dropping in to watch local tournaments, which is actually more entertaining than it sounds. Take today’s Bay Cup Senior Mixed Saber, for instance—as of yesterday morning, there were 23 entries of whom 6 are As and 10 are Bs (and some of the Bs are very strong). It won’t be the same as a NAC, by any means, but it might help hold me over until Summer Nationals in Atlanta in July.

Plus there’s that whole pizza and beer thing afterward.