When Joan Gralla began issuing certificates to the state’s high school sports officials on their 10-year service anniversaries, it wasn’t rare to honor 30-year referees.
Today, a referee or umpire reaching the 10-year mark is considered remarkable.
Everyone from Gralla—who has worked at the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association since 1981—to the National Federation of State High School Associations to local administrators recognizes the issue: Veteran high school officials are retiring faster than new officials can be recruited.
“When I first started, I gave out a lot of certificates for 30-year officials, and even 20 years,” Gralla said. “We’re not seeing that now. They’re just not staying.”
An increase in poor fan behavior, individuals choosing to officiate one specific sport instead of several and pay are some of the reasons the population of sports officials is plummeting, Gralla said.
So far, shortages are localized and vary between sports, said Gralla and Chris Nicholson, the Janesville School District secretary to the athletic director. But without an influx of new blood, the problem could become a crisis.
“If we continue the trend we’re on right now, in five years it’s going to be a major issue,” Nicholson said. “It’s brewing. That coffee pot is up to the top, and it’s getting ready to spill over.”
On their face, the Wisconsin numbers aren’t alarming.
Gralla said the WIAA has hovered near 9,000 licensed officials for several years.
“But what we need to do is put a little more focus on retaining these officials,” Gralla said. “We get them for a year or two years, maybe sometimes three, but then they leave.
“I think it’s pretty easy to recruit individuals to give it a try, but we have to work on keeping those individuals.”
According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, only 20 percent of officials return for their third year of officiating.
Gralla and Nicholson said current shortages are localized. For example, Gralla said, the northern part of the state needs more soccer officials.
Nicholson, who is in charge of scheduling officials for Janesville’s high school programs, said this area’s biggest concerns are in gymnastics, wrestling and hockey.
Nicholson said most of the area’s varsity referees and umpires attempt to work games within an hour of their homes. Some will travel up to 90 minutes, but most conferences don’t pay mileage, so longer trips come at the officials’ expense.
Nicholson told The Gazette in February he has about 60 capable and qualified basketball officials, which is down from the 100 or so he could rely on five years ago.
The area is so short on gymnastics officials, Nicholson at times has been forced to dip into his district budget to pay mileage. He said there are 27 licensed gymnastics judges in District 5, which stretches from Prairie du Chien to Sun Prairie, and four officials are needed at each gymnastics meet.
“We have only two here in Janesville,” Nicholson said. “When we need to reschedule, it’s almost impossible. And you’re not going to get the best officials to come to Janesville without paying mileage.”
Sportsmanship an issue
Gralla said she and the WIAA have surveyed officials from across the state, and the National Association of Sports Officials has, too.
While many factors are contributing to a decrease in the number of officials, poor sportsmanship by fans, and particularly parents of student-athletes, plays a major role.
“The sportsmanship issues we have with students is not really related to officials. They’re not bashing officials or trying to make contact with them after a game or following them to a car,” Gralla said. “Those are adult fans doing that sort of thing. And it’s a huge detriment, especially to a young official.”
Nicholson has been an official in football, basketball, baseball and softball for 21 years. He said verbal abuse from fans in particular has increased over the past five years. When a newer official decides to quit, 75 percent of the time fan harassment is the main reason, he said.
“Most officials work all day long; they have full-time jobs,” Nicholson said. “They have a whole lot better things they could be doing than getting screamed at.
“We’re human beings, and we have lives. We officiate because we have a passion for doing it. I wish people would understand that.”
Fan behavior is dealt with on a local level.
A WIAA sportsmanship pledge is recited before every event, and several conferences have adopted rules stating student-athletes will read that pledge over a loud speaker in an effort to drive home the point to adult fans. Trailways Conference rules require the pledge be delivered by one player from each team before every event.
Officials and event administrators can eject particularly abusive fans, but most see that as a last-ditch option.
“You’ve got to have really thick skin and let it go in one ear and out the other,” Nicholson said.
Most high school sports officials seem to agree: They’re not in it for the money.
But it can be a way to supplement a full-time income.
The Big Eight Conference pays varsity officials $65 and junior varsity officials $45 per contest. The Rock Valley Conference pays $60 and $40, respectively, Nicholson said.
“Schools wish they could pay more, but they have a budget,” Gralla said.
Nicholson said he was paid $50 per contest when he started two decades ago, so there has been an increase. He’d prefer to get the numbers to $75 and $55 if he could.
“Let’s face it, you can go and do the book or run the clock or supervise an event and make just as much as the officials, and you’re not getting the grief,” Nicholson said. “But we’re not in it for the money. It’s for the kids.”
Gralla said one factor that often goes unnoticed is that, like student-athletes, more and more officials are specializing in one sport.
“Years ago, officials would be licensed in three or four sports,” she said. “Now you can play volleyball year-round, so a volleyball official doesn’t really need to be a basketball official or softball official anymore. They can do the sport they really like year-round.”
Gralla also said she hears from some newer officials who struggle to get assigned to games because local administrators prefer to assign veteran officials to games.
Efforts are underway at the national, state and local levels to recruit and retain newer officials.
The WIAA posted a Twitter message Thursday: “Can you imagine your high school career without playing high school sports? Help stop the shortage of high school officials in Wisconsin by becoming one today!” It included a link to highschoolofficials.com.
Locally, Nicholson and other officials hope school districts can make coaching and officiating part of the physical education curriculum to drum up interest among students.
Nicholson also suggested districts or the WIAA send officials to high school practices to talk with students about officiating when their playing careers end.
If the trends do not change, Nicholson said, officials in some sports, such as basketball, could wind up working junior varsity and varsity contests in the same night. If the situation eventually becomes dire, some JV events could be put in jeopardy altogether.
The hope is national and state campaigns will increase awareness of the impending shortage and help reverse the trend.
Gralla knows it will take a team effort.
“Even youth organizations are saying they’re having trouble getting officials,” she said. “We’ve all got to work together in trying to get more officials in and keep them for many years.”