By most measures, the number of qualified, sanctioned referees is falling across the county, and this shortage is impacting youth sports at all levels, leading coaches and commissioners alike to ask, where are all the referees?
In Kansas, for example, the numbered of registered basketball referees has dropped from 2,027 in 2013 to 1,887 in 2015. A small decrease, you might think, until you realize how many games those missing 140 officials could work in a given year.
The numbers are similar across the country. In Tennessee, the number of high school football game officials declined 17 percent over the past year; Colorado officials say every year they’re recruiting fewer and fewer officials; in Montana there is such a shortage that school officials are anticipating draconian changes to game schedules.
Dating as far back as 2002, 90 percent of high school officials surveyed said there not only is a growing shortage of game officials, but that those who are still officiating are getting grayer (in many states, more than half of officials are 50 or older).
The nationwide drop in the number of game officials has resulted in contests being delayed, postponed, or shifted to different days. In Virginia, some schools have agreed to move their Friday night home football games to Thursday. But this can have an impact on gate receipts, since fewer students and parents are willing to attend a game on a school/work night.
Where Are the Referees?
All of which begs the question, why the shortage? In a word, R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
Across the country, respect for officials – from parents, coaches, and players – seems to be at an all-time low. In our win-at-all-costs culture, officials are seen as biased against a team – both teams, in fact – depending on which side of the venue you are seated.
“Unsporting behavior continues to be the main reason that people get out of officiating,” says Barry Mano, founder of the National Association of Sports. Mano, who spent 23 years as a college basketball referee, said officials increasingly are worried about their personal safety – a ridiculous notion given they are paid roughly $50 to officiate a game.
Those safety concerns aren’t without justification. Angry players have struck and killed officials. In a well-known case, two high school football players blindsided a referee and were expelled, the referee eventually filing suit against the boys, the team, and the school.
The lack of referees and game officials is also cause for concern with youth groups already suffering from a decline in youth participation.
So what are schools and youth groups doing to mitigate the shortage? For starters, many regions are waiving registration fees, offering increased payment, and even throwing in cash bonuses for qualified officials.
But to many officials, the cure is much simpler: to put in place measures that ensure parents, coaches, players and fans cheer for their teams instead of against game officials. After all, without those officials, says Don Boss, a 47-year veteran of officiating, “these kids wouldn’t be able to play.”