Aug. 27—Heading to a high school football game this fall on a Thursday night or a Saturday afternoon? The increasingly severe shortage of officials is the reason why.
While the shortage of officials in high school sports has been a continued issue in recent years, the impact is clearly evident for the first time in the schedule of games for the South Dakota High School Activities Association. About 1 in every 6 games this season is being moved to Thursday, earlier on a Friday or Saturday due to a shortage of officials.
In 2014, South Dakota had 420 officials signed up to referee high school football games. In 2020, 390 officials were available, and this year, 393 have officially registered. Due to the slow decrease in officials available to referee high school varsity football, the SDHSAA has made schedule changes to over half the high schools' football schedules, by asking schools to volunteer moving one game to a time other than Friday night and dozens of schools accommodated.
In South Dakota, the overall number of registered officials across all sports has not experienced the same decline, according to the SDHSAA. In 2019, there were 1,250 officials registered to work. In 2020, there were 1,450, and coming into the fall of this year, there are 1,500 officials registered, 26 of them being new officials. Even though the SDHSAA has added 26 new officials, the issue with football still remains because regardless of how many officials are new or currently registered, not every official is willing or will have the opportunity to cover football games, let alone at the varsity level.
South Dakota is just one of numerous states nationwide dealing with a shortage of officials, with other schools noting the need to move or cancel games due to a shortage of officials. According to the Michigan High School Athletic Association, in 2008 there were 12,722 registered officials ready to work. In 2017, there were only 9,816. Other states like Tennessee, Nevada, Oregon and Kansas have seen registered referees for all sports slowly dwindle since 2015.
An ongoing issue
The problem across many states is persuading millennials to want to referee, and athletic associations have noticed this process is becoming more difficult.
When a referee registers and is officially available to work games, that referee will be assigned to work with a crew of officials that has open spots. The SDHSAA assigns football games to football crew chiefs, who will then put their crew together and officiate the game. Part of the disconnect is that a crew chief gets to pick what team of officials he will work with each game, creating an issue where younger officials have to wait to get an opportunity to work consistently with a veteran crew.
A couple of years ago, the SDHSAA made it a requirement to have five officials at high school football games due to the game becoming faster and the belief that less mistakes will happen. They also made the change to have three officials at all basketball games, instead of two. While the SDHSAA believes that has prolonged some officials careers and given them less to worry about when officiating, they can also be of service to mentor even more young officials. The downside to that is fewer veteran crews are available to cover games and newer officials have less opportunities to be a part of one of those veteran crews.
The SDHSAA said some new officials don't work any varsity contests in their first calendar year of refereeing. That may be because of the availability amongst crews, travel or just what they deem that official can handle. Due to the number of officials not registering, not wanting to referee a certain sport or not wanting to come back and referee at all, they had to adjust their approach.
"We're getting some numbers to come in, it's just what sport they're coming in at," SDHSAA assistant executive director Jo Auch said. "We believe if we get the officials the proper training and can keep them for three years, they are more likely to continue on."
Auch said the lack of veteran crews hurts significantly in certain areas of South Dakota, specifically rural areas.
"We have pools of officials in specific areas of South Dakota where we have an abundance available. Then we have geographic locations in South Dakota where we don't have very many officials."
Why it's getting worse?
There's enough angles to view this entire dynamic, but one factor that will be tough to rectify when trying to keep an official for three years is the patience people currently have for this profession.
Cory Aadland, Mitchell High School's activities director, said it has been a struggle finding officials for games at the sub-varsity level. Mitchell has a conference officials assigner for all sports, but Aadland handles the assignments for all games below varsity level.
While Aadland said it's a combination of reasons why this happens. He attributes a lot of the struggle to people being busy with their own lives and the negative behavior that comes the referees' way, whether that's from spectators or coaches.
Aadland said officials will make mistakes and that people can voice their displeasure in a respectful way and then move on. But it's the continuous degrading treatment toward officials, making it personal, that has become unacceptable for officials and led to early exits in this career field.
"If you can't get into officiating working seventh-grade basketball, then where exactly can you get into officiating?" Aadland said. "We don't allow people to get into it and make mistakes and be in an environment where they can learn because people expect professional level officiating these days because everyone watches it on TV. It's very challenging to try to get someone into officiating when they don't have an avenue to be able to learn because of how we're treating these officials."
Outside of the fans treatment toward officials, other obstacles officials might not be willing to face is the pay. Brookings referee Jerry Beers said in some cases, younger referees might have to work four or five games in a month and have to wait to receive their earnings.
"Newer officials have to put in their dues," Beers said. "They might have to work at lower levels and the schools might pay monthly. Some schools are changing that, but that's part of it."
Due to the lack of veteran crews available, some officials will be under immense schedules to make up for the lack of crews available.
"We play some games on Thursdays, Saturdays and some early games on Fridays," SDHSAA assistant executive director Randy Soma said. "Some officials are doing two games on a Friday where they might referee as early as noon and then coming back and refereeing another game at 7 p.m., so they might have to travel from one game to the next one."
Soma said one of the most critical parts of all this is getting young officials and keeping them on board.
"We have to make it a positive experience for our referees," Soma said. We have to make sure we're doing the right sportsmanship things because it makes it tough for young officials when they get in and you're harped on early. Most officials do this, not for the money, but for the love of the sport."
The SDHSAA has changed its recruiting process and has now implemented a mentoring program where they ask veteran officials to come in and help mentor young officials either at junior-varsity games, camps or jamborees.
"The mentoring program that we have is out there for young officials to use," Auch said. "They work a game with veteran officials, they get paid to work through that experience and work with that crew. That feeling of belonging and getting that experience early will help them move up the ladder quickly."
The SDHSAA has also worked with athletic directors regarding the treatment towards officials when they arrive at the school and possible policies they can install to limit the negative fan behavior. The SDHSAA is not responsible for referees getting paid for driving to and from a game, but they are trying to find ways for schools to incorporate mileage payments.
"I think we're doing some things right and some things well as far as our recruitment of officials. It's now a matter of retaining those officials in our sports," Auch said. "I think one of the major things that we can do is trying to work with our schools on the fan base and sportsmanship within the schools because we know one of the reasons that officials choose not to officiate any longer is because they don't like to be yelled at, night after night after night."
The SDHSAA is also working on a plan to become more involved with post-secondary schools and teach those interested in officiating about everything the job entails.
Aadland, who was a referee for high school football, basketball and college basketball games from 2006-16, will be teaching a sports officiating class at Dakota Wesleyan University this fall to help young students that want to get into officiating. Students who sign up for the class will not have any financial barriers as Aadland received a grant from the SDHSAA board to reimburse students for uniforms, equipment and registration fees. This is Aadland's first year teaching the class and it will be an elective course part of the sports exercise and wellness department.
"For those officials that want to get registered, we're going to try to provide some mentorship with some of our area officials," Aadland said. "We're going to try and provide some better support and get these college students connected with established officials to try and bridge that gap and pass on some experience that they've obtained in their careers."
There are many factors that play into why millennials aren't as eager to referee sports, but what can be done to get them back in that direction?
Mount Vernon/Plankinton athletic director and boys basketball coach Eric Denning believes everything within the process plays a role. He said there needs to be a plan to make the entire experience a good experience for young officials or anyone looking to be involved.
"After creating a plan, from there, it's about how you treat them," Denning said. "That includes pay, mileage, how you put up an event and how you treat them during the game. That's fans, coaches and everybody involved in the gym or stadium."
Denning is on the Board of Directors for the SDHSAA and said while they are trying to do different things with schools to accommodate and retain officials, it's difficult on where schools draw the line on its fan base.
"It's a very subjective thing," Denning said. "Where do you draw the line? It's really a difficult situation for athletic administrators. One thing I've noticed is crowds feed off the coach and crowds feed off each other so when one person starts doing it, everybody thinks it's OK to do it. I think it's time for people to take a step back and evaluate. Some of our behaviors are putting games in jeopardy and that's a real thing now."
Denning didn't remove himself or other coaches from the role they've played as well, admitting fans aren't the only ones to blame.
"I'm a coach and an athletic director and I don't think the fans are solely to blame for that. I think coaches are as well and I'm not excusing myself from that equation either," Denning said. "I think coaches are very hard on officials sometimes and that can be even more personal than the fans are."
Soma said all games will be covered this season, but noted the trajectory isn't headed in the right direction.
"If we got to a point where we're in such dire need, you guys would see us canceling games or games of football would have to be played throughout the entire week," Soma said.
The SDHSAA has not reached that point, but this is the first year changes to the schedule have been made that far in advance with that many high schools.
Aadland hopes this profession goes in the positive direction it should and said he enjoyed his time as a referee, giving back to the sport and gaining that camaraderie with other officials that he refers to as a "brotherhood."
"Once you've done it at that level, it's not that many people that do it and it's really a brotherhood with fellow officials and you can relate to things with that group," Aadland said.
SDHSAA statewide officials coordinator Justin Ingalls said they always have enough officials ready for sports, sometimes just enough, but they want those interested to know how rewarding and fun officiating can be and truly is.
"It's like any other profession, there's ups and downs," Ingalls said. "But it's an absolutely rewarding application. I've never had more fun in my life with people I've met and close friends as I'm heading into 25-plus years in officiating."