Sports Official Startup Silbo Helps Those Who Whistle While They Work

The Silbo team. CEO Brendan Szulik is at the far right of the top row.

Co-Founders Brendan Szulik and Daniel Caldwell first developed the idea for Raleigh-based Silbo around five years ago when an umpire ruined CEO Szulik’s younger brother’s baseball game.

“My Co-Founder looked at me and instead of saying the classic, ‘Hey, isn’t this guy awful?,’ he said, ‘Where did this guy come from?’” Szulik recalled. “So that kind of sent us down this rabbit hole of asking, who are umpires and referees and sports officials? What is their life like?”

Both Co-Founders had experienced the life of being a sports official before launching Silbo, a platform that connects sports officials and amateur sports leagues to make these lives easier. Now Silbo is raking in a new round of $1.1 million in funding from Durham’s IDEA Fund Partners and Dantes Investments.

The funding will help in Silbo’s sales and marketing expansion, Szulik said. Silbo’s average selling price for leagues is around $1,000 for athletic seasons, and the startup receives 10% of what is paid per game to official. The platform enables a streamlined process for recruitment, training, scheduling, payment and evaluation of sports officials.

“I want to have an impact on the life of the sports official. Really, they’ve been treated very poorly,” Szulik said, adding that officials previously didn’t have much choice in the way they were selected, paid and trained. “So I want to essentially democratize officiating for them and advocate for these men and women who sacrifice their time for the joys of amateur sports.”

IDEA Fund Partners Managing Partner Lister Delgado met Szulik when Silbo was just a concept in his mind.

“I liked how he thinks about the problem,” Delgado said. “Whenever I hear a problem that different entrepreneurs are thinking about, even if they don’t have all the answers for everything to figure it out, if they’re thinking about it the right way, I like to keep up and encourage a continued conversation. So that’s what happened to me. I got to know Brendan really early in his process of building the company and kept in contact with him. And over time it becomes a pretty obvious match.”

Szulik will also release his new book, Whistleblower, on Amazon today (Nov. 5). The book sheds light on the realities of officiating such as low pay, harassment and a lack of diversity, Szulik said.

Addressing the lack of people of color and women in sports official roles is also a way Szulik hopes Silbo can make an impact. Traditionally, 5-10% of sports officials are women and less than 10% of sports officials are people of color, poorly reflecting the diversity of the players on the field, he said.

“I believe that providing them more opportunities, especially women who make up 40% of youth athletes, will not only improve the sports officiating pipeline but also create role models for young athletes on the field,” Szulik said.

Delgado said that often before Silbo, one (typically white) man would control the hiring of referees based on who he was friends with, thereby keeping women and minorities out of the mix.

“It’s interesting to see that in the time of the emergence of the gig economy, refereeing is a perfect type of gig-economy activity,” Delgado said. “Yet there’s a shortage of referees, and I think Silbo is going to enable all kinds of people to join the ranks of referees in a more democratic way. That will create a much more diverse aspect to it so that the people who are playing the game look like the referees.”

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About Suzanne Blake 47 Articles
Suzanne is an intern reporter for GrepBeat, who focuses on profiling startups and innovation in the area. She is a junior studying journalism and political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Reach Suzanne at suzanne@grepbeat.com.