Life just a few months ago when the 25th season of MLS kicked off seems a world away from where we find ourselves today. Everybody on the planet has adapted to cope with unprecedented changes, whilst remaining optimistic that a sense of normality will be restored in the future.
Although PRO is well-accustomed to the procedures of remote working, many practices have had to be replaced with alternative methods to ensure officials are ready to operate at the desired level, both physically and mentally, when they return.
Something that remains a constantly evolving challenge for GM Howard Webb and his team to manage at PRO.
“By the nature of who we are, what’s happened has impacted us as an organization less than some others,” explained Webb. “We have a base in New York with some staff, but less than a third of the support team work in the office, and the rest are based around the country.
“We’ve been really creative in finding ways to stay engaged and ensure the officials maintain technical sharpness and physical fitness, so when we get the green light to go back on the field again, we’re as ready as we can be.”
While MLS players have been allowed to voluntarily return to their respective clubs’ facilities for individual training in accordance with health directives, PRO, with employees spread far and wide, have had to think outside the box to ensure officials can still make progress in their own homes.
“For the physical side of things, we spoke to the sports science team and put things in place that are sustainable over a period of time, rather than some cycles that build and drop. This keeps people training at a certain level that is easy to build off without burning them out – we’ve still got a season to think about later on, hopefully.
“When gyms and athletic tracks closed, we had to ensure all of the sessions would still work, plus, the provision of some home equipment where necessary, which we worked with officials in securing.
“In addition to physical training sessions that keep the guys ticking over, we had to look at what else we could do to keep our officials connected, focused, and as sharp as they needed to be while understanding we don’t know how long this is going to last for.
“From a technical aspect, we have an online platform the officials can use extensively, with clip analysis, discussion forums, and some online exercises they can do to fill their time.”
We’ve been really creative in finding ways to stay engaged and ensure the officials maintain technical sharpness and physical fitness, so when we get the green light to go back on the field again, we’re as ready as we can be.
Additionally, PRO used expertise within the organization to explore different means of connecting to counter the fact that all face-to-face camps have had to be canceled since the pandemic began. These regular gatherings are extremely valuable in sharing experiences and training as a team.
“We liked the idea of using VirBELA – a virtual world where we can meet up – it is something different to video conferencing calls and it has served us well. It gives you more of a sense of actually being together in the same space with individual avatars and breakout rooms.
“We also use it for meeting spaces as well, in conjunction with other technologies to stream video, which a lot of our work is heavily based upon. The other day, I met an official in VirBELA to have a chat, and we went through one of his games from the first two weeks of the season, so that side has been enjoyable.
“I’m in there a couple of hours a day with an open invitation to any member of staff or official to come and visit. I give them an update on where we are in this situation and we have a general chat. We’ve also been getting together socially with online quizzes and other activities.
“Staying connected every day and sharing information gives people the consistency of knowing that PRO is still thinking about them. We created a working group with the PSRA [match officials’ union] to better understand the needs of officials at this time, allowing us to one day go back to the field.
“We’re looking forward to what’s going to happen hopefully in the next few weeks to get us back out onto the field and doing what we love.”