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WNBA referees: Can we crunch some numbers?

We might not have data on WNBA referees from what they do in the pros, but perhaps college data will give us an idea of their overall tendencies.

Hannah Foslien

There comes a point in a WNBA fan's life where you become so familiar with the league that you know who the referees are. After a while, you start to develop opinions about them. My favorite (?) referee is Michael Price - I always joke that he'll call a few fouls if he feels that there have been too few fouls called in the game, and he is definitely no-nonsense. I remember the time during an Atlanta-Phoenix game where he called a technical on Diana Taurasi when she was sitting on the bench.

I know that the league does not let its referees be lone gunmen - like every major league, the work of the officials is reviewed by the league office, and a strong effort is made to keep every ref on the same page with the goal that all referees will recognize all fouls the same way.

Undoubtedly, the WNBA keeps records on its referees but like so much of the WNBA those metrics are hidden from the fans; although we do have a database of who officiated what games, we don't have data on the specifics. Which refs call the most foul calls? Which ones call the fewest? A person could build up a database of such things but it would be very time-consuming. So is there a way to figure out the tendencies of WNBA referees?

We don't have a database, but has a database of officials who have called college games. Furthermore, a lot of WNBA referees spend their off-season refereeing Division I women's (and men's) college basketball games. We can look at data, say from the 2011-12 season, to get an impression of the traits of some WNBA referee.

There are a few problems. First, the DB is organized by the name entered. If the name has any extra characters, or is headed with a character, or has trailing blanks, it is treated like a separate name. There is a good chance that "Michael Price" and "Michael Price " (followed by blank character)" will be treated as two different people. Therefore, the table below lists "games called" as the pool of games we are looking at, instead of the total games that might have been called by the named referee.

There are also some WNBA referees excluded from the list because they didn't referee that many WNBA games last season (Marcus Clayton, Tyler Ford, Janetta Graham, Lauren Holtkamp (Bass) and Terry Maddock). There were also some WNBA referees that officiated in virtually zero Division I games from 2011-12. These might be high school referees or semi-retired, or officiate DII or DIII games, but we just can't tell. (Tim Greene, Tom Mauer, Kurt Walker).

We have everyone else, though. What follows is a table of WNBA referee tendencies in Division I college basketball for the 2011-12 season:

First Last Games Average Home Team (*) if men's
Name Name Called * Fouls Margin college
Sue Blauch 84 31.74 -2.18
Amy Bonner 90 31.93 -1.93
Eric Brewton 77 33.05 -0.90
Denise Brooks-Clauser 83 30.86 -1.91
Tony Dawkins 30 33.72 -2.92 *
Maj Forsberg 77 31.51 -0.79
Felicia Grinter 102 33.25 -3.16
Roy Gulbeyan 69 34.68 -1.35
Darryl Humphrey 53 32.15 -1.65
Cameron Inouye 108 33.01 -1.82
Byron Jarrett 26 34.81 -1.77 *
Brenda Pantoja 67 29.96 -0.44
Michael Price 77 30.08 -1.48
Lamont Simpson 75 36.11 -3.21 *
Billy Smith 80 32.65 -0.67
Jeff(rey) Smith 77 34.51 -1.65 *
Kevin Sparrock 59 33.97 0.24
Clarke Stevens 72 32.53 -2.67
Angelica Suffren 84 32.81 -1.32
Jeff Wooten 9 36.71 -5.57 *

"Average fouls" is the total number of fouls called during the game not by the referee, but by the group of referees to which that referee belonged for any of the "games called". The biggest difference is between Lamont Simpson's 36.11 fouls (I exclude Jeff Wooten due to the small sample size) vs. Brenda Pantoja's 29.96 fouls called. It might be worth knowing, particularly if your team is either great or horrible at the free throw line. If you're great at the free throw line, or if you're a deep team, you might want a squad of Lamont Simpson, Byron Jarrett and Roy Gulbean; if you want a game with no interruptions you want Brenda Pantoja, Michael Price (!) and Denise Brooks-Clauser.

Another interesting stat is the "home team margin" stat. This is the average margin on home fouls minus visitor fouls. You can tell that referees, in general, are biased against visiting teams; the negative numbers in the home team column indicate how many more fouls a visiting team is likely to receive during a game. The only case that it's implied that the ref might have a visiting team bias is the case of Kevin Sparrock, who has a +0.24 home team margin, meaning that the home team might get more fouls called against it than the visitors. Home teams would love a crew of Tony Dawkins, Felicia Grinter and Lamont Simpson; the visitors would love Kevin Sparrock, Brenda Pantoja and Billy Smith.

Note that some of the data supplied is men's DI college data. We still don't know if the DI men's referee Jeff Smith is the Jeffrey Smith who was a WNBA referee in the 2012 season. (We might never know.) More fouls seem to be called by the men's DI referees than the women's DI referees, you can draw your own conclusions if there are any.