Throughout New York City’s residential neighborhoods, street corners are typically reserved for bodegas, bars and storefront churches. But the intersection of Himrod Street and Fairview Avenue in Ridgewood, Queens hosts a different sort of business — the Referee Store.
It’s the only store in New York City that exclusively caters to the brave men and women who perform sports’ most thankless task. And while the shop outfits basketball refs, baseball umpires and even hockey linesmen from around the world, it specializes in soccer.
Owner Rafal Wlazlo, a former high-level referee, was born in Poland and played for the club Pogon Lezajsk before moving to Brooklyn about 20 years ago.
He then headed to Ridgewood, where he still lives with his wife and son, and opened the Referee Store about seven years ago. The shop is stocked with an array of neon jerseys, linesman flags, and plain black caps, which Wlazlo ships to refs around the world.
In addition to selling referee gear and apparel, Wlazlo dispenses footballing wisdom. He said he welcomes “coaches and players to join us and pick our brains or get clarification on many game-related topics.”
On Thursday, Wlazlo talked to Soccer in NYC about his store and revealed some trade secrets — like what happens in the officials’ dressing room and whether or not refs actually give make-up calls.
How did you get into the business of outfitting referees?
I’m a retired official myself — a national referee, the highest domestic certification. I’ve refereeed an international friendly match, the Women’s Professional Soccer League, [USSF] Men’s Division 2 professional soccer and NCAA D1 games.
We’ve been in business for six or seven years now. We cater to officials mainly for soccer, but we do all five major sports. Only officials, umpires, referees. Nothing for players, nothing for coaches. It’s a very niche, specific market.
Where do your customers come from?
Most business is online, but we get some walk-ins [the shop is located at the corner of Himrod Street and Fairview Avenue]. We’re the only referee-specific store in New York City. There was one on Amsterdam Avenue around 91st Street, but it’s not there anymore.
We have a big social media presence [the shop’s Facebook page has about 5,500 followers, Rafal’s Soccer Referee Society group has more than 7,300 members and his Soccer Referee USA Facebook page has more than 25,000 followers] so people know us. We work with local referee associations because they know they can come walk in and get their stuff, but you name the place and we’ve probably shipped there.
OK I’ll keep going — Spain?
I’ve never seen a referee-specific shop before. Where else would refs go to get their equipment?
You can go to Amazon and you can probably find things scattered here and there. But the difference is when you come to us you’ll find stuff that you know is higher quality and not necessarily more expensive. People don’t mind paying a dollar or two extra when the place is familiar and trusted.
What’s your top-selling item?
That I couldn’t answer because we sell a little bit of everything. Referees will always need new uniforms, shirts, pants, whistles. All the stuff they’re using up all the time.
We also used to sell soccer jerseys and some shoes too, but space constraints don’t allow us to sell them at the moment. We would have to have a much bigger space because shoes take up space.
Do you have a favorite referee?
No, I don’t have a favorite. Everyone has their good and bad days haha. It depends on who you’re rooting for and what’s happening in the game.
Who do you root for?
I like watching La Liga and the Premier League. I guess I support Atletico [That’s my team!] because they’re just coming up and I’m getting a little tired of [Real] Madrid. I don’t like Barcelona because of their playing style — death by a thousand cuts.
You don’t like that possession style?
It’s too boring! That’s why I like watching the Premier League. It’s two or three touches and they’re going toward goal.
You must like Liverpool with their direct style.
Oh yeah and I like Klopp. Madrid plays a counter-attacking game too. They caught Bayern with their pants down a few times [in the Champions League Semifinal].
I prefer the Premier League. It’s more competitive. On any given Sunday, you can have a team from the bottom beat a team on top. In La Liga, that’s far more rare. The Premier League is more entertaining.
What are the biggest challenges for a referee?
You have to watch how teams are responding to calls. If I’m going to do a game with two Irish teams, they will probably want to play through a lot more than two American teams or two South American teams would. It’s just the style and I have to take a different approach.
What gets really dicey is when you have ethnic leagues and you may have an Irish team playing a Jamaican team. You have to find a sweet spot that makes everyone happy because one will want to play through a lot more than the other so it does get dicey.
The most important thing is to be consistent. Teams might not agree with calls, but if you’re consistent they’ll be okay with it.
What made you stop refereeing games?
At some point, skill is not enough and you need to have good connections with the right people at the top. You have to be somebody’s favorite.
For example, a friend of mine was a better referee than me and when I was just a candidate for national level, I was getting big games. But he was already a national referee and he wasn’t getting the games. He didn’t have the connections.
A lot of my friends were leaving and so I said I’ll give it six months and if I don’t come up on anyone’s radar then I’m going to call it quits.
My goal was to get to the national level because after that it’s like a lottery. I’m happy with the type of games I was getting and I’m glad I didn’t waste my time over the next five-to-ten years trying to figure it out.
A lot of referees at the MLS level are either divorced or single.
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What happens at halftime? How do officials talk about the tough calls or confront each other about missed calls?
Because they wear communication devices, there’s a lot of chatter during the game. But you don’t chit-chat non-stop so you reconvene at half time and use the time to fix up whatever you need to fix up.
There are a lot of contradictions to what actually happens and what you’re told to do. For instance, for the assistant referee to raise the flag and make a foul call, he has to not only see the misconduct, he has to be sure the referee didn’t see it.
So if one guy chopped the other in half and I’m the assistant referee and I see you saw the same play because we’re facing each other and the play is between us, I’m not supposed to do anything. The assistant referee will know the ref missed the call, but it happens both ways. The ref could get pissed at the assistant because the assistant will raise the flag, but the ref wanted them to play through it.
How do referees analyze their performance at halftime?
I talk sometimes literally right after the game or at halftime with the refs I know because I’m a walking laws-of-the-game encyclopedia. I’ve always been like that. So they’ll call sometimes because they’re being assessed and they need to know if they got it wrong.
They’ll call and ask, “What did you see?” and I’ll say, “Well you’re going to have a lot of ass-kissing to do because you made a mistake.”
It’s competitive. You think all refs would be friends, but that’s their job and they’re like athletes fighting for a spot on the team. You’re fighting for the same position.
So are make-up calls real?
Everybody will tell you no, but those things do happen. Refs are human. You’re not supposed to ever do a make-up call, but I’d be wrong if I told you they never do — sometimes subconsciously.
Yesterday’s Roma game [against Liverpool in the Champions League Semifinal], the penalty at the end of the match, that was not handling [In the 94th minute Nainggolan scored Roma’s fourth goal after the referee awarded a dubious penalty kick. Earlier in the match the ref missed a more blatant handball in the box].
That was a make-up call.