How would you feel if you were thinking of getting into officiating and these were the recruitment slogans thrown at you?:

  1. “Tired of the Spouse and Kids? Become a Referee!”
  2. “Umpires Needed! How Much Abuse Can You Take?”
  3. “Officiating: It’s More Fun Than Stamp Collecting!”

Probably wouldn’t make you want to sign up, would it?

Those slogans, if they were real, certainly wouldn’t be considered very well thought out.

They’re counterproductive, slapdash and vaguely menacing. The recruitment efforts of most local associations, if they exist, aren’t likely that ridiculous, but are they any better considered? How much time, research and effort have you put into your recruiting campaign?

Commander Steven C. Lowry of the Navy Recruiting Command outlined the process by which the U.S. Navy recruits new sailors, and how sports officiating organizations can apply those same principles.

The Target Market

According to Lowry, before you can begin any recruiting initiative you must first identify that there’s a problem. “You’ve already reached phase one,” Lowry told the audience in Norfolk, pointing out that the conference theme of recruitment and retention was an acknowledgment of the problem. “You’ve recognized that you are or shortly will be experiencing difficulties in getting and keeping experienced sports officials.”

Once that acceptance of the problem exists, the second step is to research the problem, said Lowry. That means examining what does and doesn’t work in recruiting. “You not only have to identify your target market and their preferences,” he said, “you have to develop a definitive plan for reaching that market.”

In the Navy’s case, the target market is young men and women. For officials organizations, the target market doesn’t necessarily have to be younger people, but because of the ever-aging pool of current officials, it’s not a bad idea.

Once you identify a particular market of potential recruits, Lowry said, “You need to find out their long-range goals and defining characteristics. Do you know what media they prefer? How they seek out information? That’s critical.”

Lowry said the Navy recruits through the Internet and social media, mediums that tech-savvy younger people gravitate toward. Additionally, the television commercials the Navy uses emphasize technological advancement and, as Lowry put it, “cool toys.”

Surveys conducted by both NASO and the NFHS give some clues as to why people don’t get into officiating and why people leave officiating. Two major factors that came up time and again were sportsmanship issues, meaning people were turned off by the proliferation of poor sportsmanship, and career or job demands, meaning that full-time jobs are demanding too much time.

Packaging the Product

“It sounds sort of crass,” said Lowry. “But if you want to sell somebody something, you need to persuade them that’s what they need.”

To sell the concept of sports officiating, Julie Ilacqua, managing director of federation services for the USSF, said, “You can sell being involved in a sport you love at a higher level as an official than perhaps you could have attained as a player. Most people look at the abuse officials take and say, ‘Why would I want to do that?’ Officiating is a mental and physical challenge – some people will respond to that.”

Another approach to sell the avocation to younger officials, according to Ilacqua, is the financial side. “Our young officials see other young officials on their games and know they are getting paid to officiate. That is probably the biggest motivating factor for a young official,” she said.

And the people needed to sell those wares, the recruiters themselves, where do they come from? “Our product is Naval service,” said Lowry, “Sailors who have lived the Navy life make more credible salesmen.”

“The best tool we have,” said Bruce Hulion, commissioner of football officials for the South Carolina High School League, “is word of mouth — an official recruiting a prospect. Nothing sells better than your own personal experience. Over the years, that has been the major focus of our recruiting efforts. However, using today’s technology, we receive numerous inquiries from people who have found our website and ask about becoming an official. The Internet and social media will be used even more in our recruitment efforts in the future.”

But the efforts of recruiters are not easy, warned Lowry. “For every young person who signs a contract to come into the Navy, a recruiter has to talk to between 80 and 100 prospects. Not a great ratio. There’s a lot of rejection and you have to be prepared to deal with that.”

When pulling potential recruiters from the ranks, Lowry advised asking a few questions first: “Who will make the most effective salespeople? What training do they need? Who is going to provide the training? And the bottom line: Who is going to fund that training? Your personal contacts are not going to be enough to keep the system going. We tried that and it didn’t work. You must go out, meet people, talk to them about officiating. We found we needed the training to coordinate that effort. Perhaps your groups will, too.”

Dan Rudloff, president of the Eastern Pennsylvania Intercollegiate Soccer Officials Association, said he has to beat the bushes to find officials. “We do recruitment at local clubs, high schools, guys who play sports in college to find someone available. We’ve placed flyers around colleges, but it’s time-consuming. We’ve placed ads in college newspapers. Everyone is busy with families and officiating, and recruiting takes away from that. Officiating is already a sacrifice to the family.”

But to truly reach out to find officials, you cannot limit your search to athletics, says Lowry. “Our recruiters are encouraged to go where the prospects go — malls, shopping centers, sports events, sports-centric bars & restaurants… all those places. You have to ask yourself, ‘Where does my target market hang out?’ Do people who might be interested in sports officiating spend all their free time at sporting events? Probably not. I don’t sit by the waterfront on all of my free time.”

Obstacles and Incentives for Recruitment

No successful recruitment effort is going to fall into place without encountering some bumps along the way. For the Navy as well as for officiating, said Lowry, those obstacles include the availability of prospects, the likelihood that an individual will be interested in recruiting and a decline in the number of veterans.

“With the loss of veterans, we lose the positive stories, the experiences that influence the young people to serve,” Lowry said, a lesson that applies directly to officiating and the influence veterans can wield in bringing new officials into the fold.

“Our retirees have not been instrumental in our recruiting efforts,” said Hulion. “That’s an area we hope to change soon. Some of our retirees have suggested that they be allowed to return and help train some of the younger guys.”

Ilacqua agrees with the use of veterans to help, especially with regard to retention. She said mentors are “the way to go to keep referees in the program. We know that all of our national referees have been mentored through their officiating careers. To formalize this program when you have more than 110,000 referees is difficult. We do recommend that it be done at the state level. We are now trying to identify promising referees at a younger age so we can see that they have a mentor.”

Lowry posed a number of questions worth considering to retain experienced personnel: “Are the veterans of your organization present? Are they working? Are they influencing the people who you want to be the next generation of sports officials? What would the loss of those veterans do to you? How would they influence you?”

Recruitment is just one part of a larger whole, says Lowry. “The Navy looks at recruiting as only one leg of the tripod of its personnel program. The other two are attrition and retention. Think about it; it makes sense: By reducing attrition and increasing retention, you lower the number of prospects you need.”

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