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For the Love of Stripes

Donning a black-and-white striped shirt for the first time, Travis Blomberg stepped onto the court with the presumption that his success as a player would translate into his officiating abilities. But that confidence was smashed faster than a just-emptied beer can. The three-sport athlete quickly realized just knowing the rules didn’t mean he could make the calls.

“I wasn’t a very good official when I stepped on the court the first time,” Blomberg says. “I wasn’t a good official because no one taught me before I actually officiated. I was a learn-on-the-go guy. And I realized, you can’t do it that way.”

A freshman in high school making the calls for 8th graders didn’t exactly help build up Blomberg’s credibility either. But within the year, he developed the vision to help young officials, like himself, break into officiating with a reputation for excellence rather than a black cloud of stereotypes over their heads.

Getting his start.

Growing up in Colfax, a town in northwestern Wisconsin with a bustling population of around 1,000 people, Blomberg had athletic aspirations of a different nature.

“When I was young, I never thought I would be an official. I always thought I was going to be a player,” he says, adding that he wanted to play basketball through college. But when he began coaching his little sister’s basketball team in 8th grade, he started to see a part of the game that needed improvement: the officials.

In the state of Wisconsin, officials for youth tournaments often are not Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association (WIAA) certified. Therefore, they are not held to the same standards. The officials for many youth tournaments are simply people who know the rules, but do not necessarily understand the ins and outs of officiating.

Blomberg moved into officiating during his first year of high school, but maintained his big-time basketball aspirations. He obtained WIAA certification for officiating and started working as an independent contractor, doing tournaments here and there around his schedule as a three-sport athlete.

The summer between freshman and sophomore year, he started talking about summer job opportunities with two of his friends, Logan Kiekhafer and Brady Isaacson, and his brother, Jeremy Blomberg. They decided to take their individual officiating experience to the next level. Naming themselves the Stripes Officiating Agency (SOA), they started making cold calls to tournament directors to find jobs to fill their summer. Their success that summer pushed them to continue and narrow in on the niche of youth tournaments.

An unexpected challenge.

These young entrepreneurial referees didn’t initially realize what they were getting themselves into. How hard could it be to referee 4th through 8th graders? But soon, Travis and his friends learned that while officiating youth tournaments may seem like a fun learning experience, players, parents and coaches add an unexpected intensity to the games.

Travis says they’ve seen it all. While officiating a 5th grade girls basketball tournament, the coach for one of the teams was being unruly and was given two technical fouls throughout the course of the game. When the officials finally threw him out, the coach slammed his clipboard on the ground, where it ricocheted off the floor and hit one of his own players in the face.

Despite crazy coaches and parents, SOA officials love what they do when everything is said and done.

“You get rowdy fans. You get rowdy coaches, but at the end of the day you’re just reffing a basketball game,” Kiekhafer says.

Jeremy Blomberg says SOA will typically go into a tournament and work the same court or two for the entire eight games of the day, which is beneficial for the players because the officiating is consistent and they understand how the game will be called.

The youth players come into tournaments with minimal skill and knowledge. Jeremy says they capitalize on teaching moments with the players, which is appreciated by parents, coaches and tournament directors.

“We work hard so everyone else can play hard,” Travis says.

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