If you go to a pickleball tournament, chances are you’ll notice that the referees are often very comfortable around each other.
That’s not an accident. A bunch of them are married to each other.
Pickleball isn’t just a social sport for players. It’s also a social sport for referee couples, who take their shared passion for the game on the road several weeks a year.
Steve Korker, 71, of Pompano Beach, Florida, a Level 1 referee, said he became a pickleball referee because it gave him more time to be around his wife, Joanna, who is a certified ref.
“This may sound sappy, but I love being with my wife and I don’t know what tomorrow may bring,” Korker said.
What often happens is that one member of the couple will referee at tournaments while their spouse does some other volunteer work.
“I kept hearing from other refs, ‘When are you going to be a ref?” Korker said.
Tom Tadler and his wife, Yolanda, got started on their pickleball journey seven years ago after they volunteered for desk duty at the U.S. Open in Naples, not far from their Florida home.
Both passionate about the sport, the Tadlers learned about the need to referees and training classes in the area.
So, they gave it a try, and it became something else they shared.
“We learn from each other,” Yolanda said. “It’s something we both enjoy, so we can have discussions about it.”
Unlike some other sports, pickleball referees almost always have the court supervision duties to themselves. So, referee couples don’t actually officiate the same game.
They work around each other, but not with each other. And if they have a break in the schedule, and have time to watch their spouse work a game, they do. Respectfully.
“We don’t dispute each other’s judgment on a game call,” said Gail Scavongelli, who referees tournaments with her husband, Ed Johnson.
Gail and Ed play pickleball too.
“But we don’t play as a doubles team because that wouldn’t be good for the marriage,” Gail said.
Like other pickleball referee couples, they say that having a partner with such a specific, time-consuming and detailed interest, adds another dimension to their relationship.
“It’s nice,” Gail said. “We talk about incidents on the court, and Ed likes to stay up late and read the rules.”
Money certainly isn’t a motivator for referee couples. In fact, it often works against them. Referees typically make between $5 and $15 per game, depending on their certification level.
Even if referees officiate at 10 to 15 games per day during tournaments – which is a long day – they’re not making enough money to cover their expenses in many cases.
Tournaments often don’t reimburse them for travel or lodging. Unmarried referees often share hotel rooms to defray the travel costs, but married couples pay for their own rooms, and the double costs put them more in the hole.
So why do they keep doing it?
“It’s the love of the game,” Korker said. “Talk to any referee and they’ll tell you they do it to give something to the game.”
Some people think they might want to be a pickleball referee, but gradually realize the sacrifices they will have to make to do it, said Andy Jones, 71, a referee instructor from Allentown, Pennsylvania.
“Out of every 12 people you train, you’re lucky if one or two stay on,” Jones said. “It’s not for everyone.”
So, having your life partner out there with you, rather than leaving him or her behind for several weeks per year, makes it work for some people.
Or maybe not. Larry Havard, a Level 2 referee, said he can’t ever imagine his wife putting on the referee uniform with him.
“She plays pickleball as a social player,” Harvard said, “But she doesn’t have the will to take the grief that referees get on the court.”
So, Havard goes off to referee alone, and then returns home each time with a new batch of his pickleball stories.
“I tell her about the great people I meet,” he said.