Schools grapple with shortage of officials

Administrators forced to juggle game schedules because of dwindling number of referees attributed to bad adult behavior, retirements

A FULL TEAM of officials took the field for the Ozaukee High School football game in Fredonia last weekend but on Saturday, not Friday night when games are traditionally played, because of schedule changes necessitated by a shortage of referees. Photo by Sam Arendt
By 
MITCH MAERSCH
Ozaukee Press staff

als, they would be put on the endangered species list.

Area schools continue to feel the shrinking pool of people to enforce the rules at a variety of sports, and this year it has hit football.

Friday night lights for a few teams have been moved to Thursdays or Saturdays.

Ozaukee has played twice on Saturday and has two Thursday games scheduled. Two of those are due to the availability of officials; one Thursday was to allow for a head start to Labor Day weekend, and one Saturday was to accommodate a team that had a three-hour bus ride.

Cedar Grove-Belgium and Port Washington each had one game moved to a Thursday.

Grafton managed to schedule all of its games on Fridays, but it wasn’t immune to the referees supply shortage. The Black Hawks’ season opener at Whitefish Bay started about a half hour later than usual because officials worked a game that afternoon and couldn’t guarantee they could arrive in time for a 7 p.m. kickoff.

Grafton Athletic Director and Associate Principal Kevin Moore said that’s not ideal.

“They like to communicate, sit down and talk before they hit the field. They need to be as prepped as anybody,” he said.

“These are people who take this role pretty seriously and want to get things right. They do it because they love high school athletics and they love the sport, and they want to keep these things happening.”

Moore said he discusses the shortage at the parents meeting before every sports season “just to educate people about what’s going on in officiating.

“At the next sporting event, look around. Very rarely do you see an official younger than the age of 55 or 50,” he said.

Older officials are hanging on and sometimes guilt tripped into working.

“‘If you don’t come back on and do some games, we’re not going to have enough (officials),’” Moore said they are told.

Younger officials are getting out early, and fewer young people are entering the field.

The biggest reason for the shortage is how officials are treated. A national survey of officials found that the top reason that officials report for leaving the avocation is “adult behavior,” Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association Assistant Director Kate Peterson Abiad said.

The WIAA and Wisconsin Athletic Directors Association ran a radio ad in 2020 about treating officials with respect.

In 2010, the WIAA ended the sports season with 9,940 officials. In 2020, that final number was 9,249, Abiad said.

Last year, the organization started with 6,071 officials but that grew to 9,164 by the end of the year as registrations were completed over several months.

The number is a moving target because officials who only work a certain season, such as spring, don’t register until closer to when that season’s sports start.

Officials who are still working are busier than ever.

“Officials have reported that they are working two to three times more contests than in past years,” Abiad said.

“Especially our most experienced and most talented officials. Everyone wants the best officials on their games, so these officials are working an unbelievable amount of contests.”

Moore said he has seen many of the same officials, especially at the freshman and junior varsity levels.

“That’s where I see the crunch,” he said. “There’s not a huge pool.”

Softball and baseball tend to be the most difficult sports to schedule, Moore and Ozaukee High School Athletic Director Andy McKee said.

Some Grafton baseball games last year were moved to different locations where officials were working one game and willing to do a second, Moore said.

“If you wanted to become a high school baseball or softball official, from youth to varsity, you could probably work every night of the week,” Moore said.

McKee said the football schedule changes could become the norm.

“I expect us to be playing football games between Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights for the near term. The Big East Conference began planning for that issue in the 2023 season as early as last year,” he said.

The WIAA has begun efforts to increase the pool of officials, Abiad said, including a 10-week onboarding program for officials and recruitment and free licensing of high school-age students.

Abiad said 24 high schools in the state teach officiating courses for credit, and she said 133 more are interested. Abiad and an officiating course teacher from Watertown will present a session on running an officials course at the Wisconsin Health and Physical Education Convention in the Wisconsin Dells on Oct. 27.

The WIAA is also pulling together committees in each sport to address barriers to officials and set recruitment goals.

“Each sport faces different challenges for their officials, so we want to be proactive in addressing each sport individually, in an effort to improve the experience and the interest in officiating,” Abiad said.

“If we don’t recruit more people to officiate, it’s going to have an effect on high school athletics at some point in time,” Moore said.

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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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