Feature Article - April 2022
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Endangered Species

Attracting—and Retaining—Sports Officials

By Daniel LeComte, Peter Titlebaum & Ronald Dick


As a youth, you may have dreamed of competing against other children in sports. It was exciting to play against friends, neighbors or school rivals. Playing a sport as a child was fun. Practicing in your driveway or at the gym with friends led to spending hours "perfecting your craft."

While young athletes practice and prepare for their season, another group also prepares for the same season—sports officials, or as some call them, the refs. Many of the men and women who wear the zebra stripes officiate so they can stay around the game, even though they are no longer playing. The noble desire to give back to youth or high school sports is another reason cited by some officials. However, many are experiencing the downsides of officiating, which may lead them to pursue other forms of income instead.

While this trend can be reversed, we have to first understand the current landscape and take the steps needed to save the profession. If this trend continues, there will be no one to replace these officials when they retire from making calls on the field. Previous data suggests that in addition to the rising age of officials, other reasons why their number is dwindling can be attributed to pay, safety and respect.

Pay

There is no denying that the "side hustle" has come into popularity. Depending on the sport, an official can pocket $25 to $75 per game. It is also a great way to network with fellow refs and get exercise at the same time. One can gain and learn valuable life skills such as communication. integrity and hard work.

Sports officials spend more than 25 hours in the classroom to earn a permit to officiate youth sports. After officials are certified, they spend hours watching films, reading rulebooks and studying the mechanics of their sports. Adding to those costs are indoor or outdoor training, up to $300 for equipment and uniforms and other expenditures. The time and money officials put into "perfecting their craft" is often overlooked compared to the rate they will eventually be paid.

Those who hire for these positions need to revisit the topic of pay rates for officials. Times have changed. When people pick up a side hustle these days, they expect to be rewarded with a fair pay rate. After all, they have choices. Many places of employment these days are having a hard time attracting younger employees. If they cannot recruit people, they cut services or hours of operation.

Consider this baseline: A third-party delivery driver (DoorDash, Uber Eats, Grubhub) can make on average $19 an hour working when they want and wherever they want. Sport leaders need to understand that people have choices for why they pick up a side job. They need to make officiating more attractive, as the competition outside of sports will make an appealing pitch for new workers.

Officials should receive higher rates for varsity games, and state associations could even consider reimbursing for mileage. This will help with travel and be appropriate compensation for calling games at any level.

Safety

Doug Abrams, an expert in youth sports, has been noticing the exodus of referees for years: In the article "Can We Improve the Culture of Sports?" Abrams contends that officials quit in droves each year due to incessant verbal, and sometimes physical, abuse inflicted by coaches and especially by parents.

Often, the culture of youth sports reflects the culture of professional sports. Young athletes emulate their professional heroes. Violence begets violence; trash talk inspires trash talk; berating the referees sparks additional insults.

In order to change a culture, new structures are needed to support the desired outcomes. In the case of sports, everyone seems to agree that the primary focus must be player safety, but that shouldn't be the only focus.

With an incident taking place more than once every 10 games, administrators should be more concerned for the safety of officials.

As mentioned, officiating is a part-time position often undertaken for altruistic reasons. As a result, risk of harm is a high deterrent to effective recruitment and retention of officials. Sports officials feel that coaches should receive a refresher course on the rules of each sport but from an official's perspective.


Where Do We Go From Here?

In the future, there will be a shortage of officials, and that will change the landscape of youth and high school sports. These few steps would go a long way to making officiating an appealing option:

Short Term (in the next year):

  • Be kinder, show respect to officials.
  • Make startup costs for getting into officiating more affordable.
  • Work with Sport Official associations across your state to increase pay to properly reflect the time and money spent on officiating.
  • Assign new officials to mentors (with at least 5 years of experience).
  • Collaborate more with officials on the assignment process.

Long Term (two to three years):

  • Create a code of conduct for players, coaches and fans.
  • Create a "Game Called System":

A "Game Called System" can be used in event that the official or officials don't feel safe to continue officiating that game due to verbal or physical attacks from players, coaches or fans. The team that is winning at the moment will automatically win the game.

After the game is called, the officials will be escorted to their cars by game management or administration, if needed.

As soon as possible, the officials must send separate reports to their assignor stating exactly what happened. The assignor will then decide if the report gets sent to the state association.

If game film is available, then that must be obtained to show proof.