Officials’ Whistles Go Digital

The development coincides with concerns about health and safety in sports

The connection between sports officials and the timing systems necessary to games’ outcomes has been getting more technical. For the past two decades, the NBA and the leading collegiate basketball leagues have been deploying a Precision Time Systems system that uses the sound of the referee’s whistle to activate the stop-clock function on game-time clocks. With the last 10 seconds of games counted to the tenth of a second, the immediacy of the connection between the whistle and the clock being stopped is critical.

That connection could become even more precise as some sports embrace the digital whistle. Its market acceptance is being propelled by the fact that it does not need to be blown, thus not aerosolizing the referee’s saliva, a common way that viruses can be spread in sports.

A number of companies manufacture battery-powered digital whistles, which are essentially piezo-electric buzzer-type speakers activated by the push of a button. But Fox 40, a Hamilton, ON, company that has by far the largest market share of all types of officiating whistles in the North American market, is taking the whistle into the digital realm. Founded by Ron Foxcroft, a former NCAA referee, Fox 40 is built on the success of the its pea-less whistle, introduced in 1987 and now used by the NBA, NCAA, the NFL, and the CFL as well as at several Olympics.

Precision Timing Systems President Mike Costabile is a former NBA referee.

Fox 40’s digital whistle is palm-sized and has three distinct tones, each of which can be aimed in a specific direction. Perhaps its biggest selling point, though, is that it doesn’t need to be placed to the lips and blown, offering a hygienic solution during a virulent global pandemic. It’s a social distancer for sports that bring athletes and officials in close proximity, well within the 6-ft. minimum distancing widely mandated now. The company has logged an estimated 50,000 orders for these, mostly sports-related, since May 1, according to the New York Times. It also nicely addresses the fact that officials may be wearing masks and be unable to quickly blow a whistle.

Perfect Timing
The arrival of the digital whistle could mesh neatly with the electronic game-clock systems that sports rely on, how they’re evolving, and the arrival of the pandemic. Precision Timing Systems’ Remote Whistle Timing System, introduced in 1997, is designed to reduce the average 0.7-second reaction time between a referee’s seeing the need to stop a play and actually blowing a whistle. Positioned by a lanyard, a microphone near the ref’s mouth connects to a microprocessor in the official’s beltpack. The sound of the whistle activates the processor, which sends an RF signal to a base station connected to the game clock, in a matter of milliseconds. As a backup, the official timekeeper also has buttons to stop and start the clock and is required to continue to push the button to stop the clock when they hear the whistle. But, says Precision Timing Systems President Mike Costabile, a former NBA referee himself, “The whistle is the winner every time.”

He notes that the system is tuned to use Fox 40’s acoustical whistles, whose frequency response can vary slightly but average about 3.8 kHz. Before each game, the system is fine-tuned: the official blows the whistle twice, and the system’s electronics sample the sound and register it for that particular game in that particular acoustical environment. That, Costabile says, avoids potential hacks by someone in the stands blowing a whistle.

“How hard you blow a whistle and the space that you blow it in can affect the exact frequencies it produces,” he explains. “It can vary in the same referee if he has a head cold one day and not the next. We specifically calibrate the whistle and the referee for each game in each venue.”

The same protocol is used for digital whistles, Costabile notes. Further, the new PTS-900 digital system includes a time stamp that can be used for any challenges a team or coach may bring, along with enhanced calibration and a touchscreen for the beltpack and two USB ports for downloading game files for review. The wireless operation is frequency-agile over 250 RF channels.

Yes, They’re That Loud
What might be now called analog whistles have health concerns that predate the COVID-19 virus. As SVG reported in 2013, shrill whistles can reach as high as 116 dB; a safe daily noise dose, as determined by OSHA, can be exceeded in a matter of seconds. And they can occasionally vex A1 mixers, who know that whistles are an important part of the audio landscape but can sometimes evade the compressors deployed to keep their stridency under control.

“Sometimes, the ref is very close to a parab that’s up quite high in the mix,” A1 Phil Adler said at the time about whistles in the mix. “If I didn’t have a limiter, it would sound nasty and trigger another limiter somewhere else down the line. Unfortunately for my submixer, he doesn’t have one on his headphones, so he usually comes away with a splitting headache at the end of each game. I’m amazed he’s got any high-end left in his hearing.”