It started off as an idea for sports officials to come together to talk to one another and get some training on how to become better officials. It has now evolved into the premiere event in the sports officiating industry with corporate sponsors, high-profile speakers, vendors and numerous shared ideas that allow attendees to go back to their organizations and improve the officiating vocation. If you have not figured it out yet, we’re talking about the 38th NASO Sports Officiating Summit, which this July 26-28 will convene in Montgomery, Ala.

But the evolution of the Summit has come after years of learning what content works, making mistakes and adapting to the changing officiating landscape. Originally started in 1981 with a small convention in Chicago, a $30,000 budget and less than five sponsors, the NASO Summit has overcome financial challenges, low attendance and content deprivation to become a conference that is owned by the officiating community with a sense of immense pride.

That first year there were only two speakers; Jim Tunney and sportscaster Brent Musburger. The 2020 Summit is expected to have nearly 100. Barry Mano, NASO president, said the Summit’s transition has been one of the best things to watch in his life. Mano said there were only 65 people at that first conference in Chicago. Already the 2020 Summit is expected to have more than 400. There were only three or four people involved in producing the first conference. This year there will be 25 people working on the Summit in some capacity.

“It’s amazing, when I think back on how this all started to what it has become today,” Mano said. “I mean there was a time where we didn’t really know if it was going to continue.”

Mano was talking about a period in the late 1990s when states started offering more officiating clinics. Summit attendance started to wane and the financial cost of the gathering was putting the company in a tough position.

“We were losing money on it. So in 1996 we canceled it. That didn’t sit well with us,” Mano said. “We came back in ’97 and ’98, but it still wasn’t very good, so we canceled it again in 1999.”

Faced with a do-or-die, the Summit was brought back for the beginning of the millennium. However, Mano said a watershed moment came when he had dinner with Ronnie Carter, then-executive director of the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association. Carter proposed having a “State Day” where officials from the host state would have one day of the conference to attend. In 2009, when the Summit was held in Tucson, Ariz., that was when the first “State Day” began. Originally, they were only expecting about 300 officials to attend. But as the registrations kept increasing, Mano knew something huge was about to happen. The final attendance for the first State Day was 1,040.

Recognizing those in the industry who have contributed to the vocation became a part of the Summit in 1988 when the first Gold Whistle Award was presented to Art McNally. The Gold Whistle Award recognizes outstanding contributions of sports officials beyond their officiating. The award is presented annually at the Summit. Recipients are selected by the NASO board of directors and the Awards Committee. The Mel Narol Medallion Award recognizes an individual or organization that has made significant contributions to NASO. The Medallion Award is named after Mel Narol, longtime officiating legal advocate. Narol received the award posthumously in 2003 and the award was then renamed to honor him.

Another pivotal point for the Summit occurred in 2013 when the event was held in Grand Rapids, Mich. It led to NASO striving yearly to create a “wow” factor for attendees to remember. At the 2019 Summit in Spokane, Wash., the budget for audio/visual was more than double the cost of the first conference alone. Creating a fresh look, increasing content and bringing in industry leaders will remain a focus for the Summit for years to come.

“We want those who attend to leave knowing they have more knowledge than when they came,” Mano said. “In that sense, it hasn’t changed from its original purpose in 1981.”