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We need more officials, plain and simple. The not-so-simple part is figuring out how to spark the fire in new recruits that will keep them engaged for the long run and create lifelong officials.

One place to go for answers is to ask veteran officials to talk about how they got into officiating. You can often hear the love they have for it in their voices as they recount the moment it dawned on them that they’d be doing this for the rest of their lives.

Joan Powell is happy to share her experience. “I actually took a (college) course in officiating,” she said. “My first gig was CYO. It was outdoors, on asphalt, in Tucson, Ariz., and I was on top of a turned over garbage can for $5 a match, and I thought I had died and gone to heaven.”

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It was just that cool for her.

Powell, who is the coordinator of women’s volleyball officiating for the W5 Consortium and highly involved in the Professional Association of Volleyball Officials, related that story when she moderated the “Help Wanted: Why Officiating Is Cool” session at a recent Sports Officiating Summit dedicated to Recruitment & Retention.

The problem, however, is tales like hers are becoming fewer and the authors of them are getting older, because the drumbeat heard from California to Maine, Washington to Florida, is not good.

There are simply not enough high school-level officials out there anymore. Numbers are down almost everywhere with an ever-shrinking pool of 300,000-350,000 officials working interscholastic sports nationwide.

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A recent study by Ohio University painted a challenging picture, as there are officiating declines everywhere and in almost every sport. A casual Google survey reveals dozens of stories on the topic.

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“We are one official away at any given venue of having to cancel a game,” Dave Pixton of the Northwest New Mexico Officials Association told KOB-TV. In Kansas, the average age of softball officials is around 60, according to another article.

The common wisdom goes that if you can get an official to that third year, then you’ve probably hooked them. But getting to that third year is proving to be a major problem, as according to a recent NFHS study, only two of 10 officials return for that third season, an attrition rate of 80 percent.

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Athletes are often good potential officials in the sports they play. Some states are asking coaches to identify athletes who might thrive in officiating. Jeff Pohjola, Duvall, Wash. (Photo Credit: Dale Garvey)

The factors leading to the officiating crisis are numerous. They include the following:

  • Older officials retiring and younger officials not replacing them;
  • Low pay and increasingly busy schedules for officials who have day jobs and families to tend to;
  • And an increasingly hostile work environment as parents become more involved, and spectators seem to have fewer filters when it comes to expressing their displeasure with officials, including physical violence.

Underlining that point, the Ohio University study reported that more than 85 percent of officials would consider leaving if the environment worsens.

The issues sometimes begin internally and include the hard-boiled assigner who demands an official attend his or her camp at an exorbitant price, the territorial issues of having to commit to work for one district but not the other and the potential of being blackballed for having done that, and the simple cost of becoming an equipped official.

“I’ll vent here, and I’ll sound like the raving lunatic for a second,” Michigan High School Athletic Association Executive Director Mark Uyl said. “We’re all very conscious of the real upfront cost (for officials), dues and uniforms, and all of that stuff. That, we can all live with and work with.

“The maddening thing then is the undercurrent stuff. ‘Well, if you want to work for me, I really need to see you at camp, and my camp is $275.’ Or, ‘You know what, I’ll give you some games, and it’s a $40 fee a game, but just know that I take $5 a game as an assigning fee. Oh, hey, and by the way, I get the money up front from the schools, and then I pay you at the end of the season.’ Just all of those things that, in my humble opinion, are shady as all get-out, and that’s the stuff that drives people away.”

It’s a hard attitude to break, added Powell.

“I had an assigner once that said, ‘There’s only one reason to turn back a match, and that’s death, and it had better be yours,’” she said. “What is that?”

Fortunately, the cures are as diverse as the causes, but they require some imagination and determination to make them work.

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NASO created their Say Yes To Officiating website to direct interested people in the right direction and to give states and local associations recruitment and retention resources.

The NFHS also started its own recruitment initiative with a website where candidates can start the process of getting certified in their state at HighSchoolOfficials.com.

The key is creating something, that if more people tried, would find out is very cool.

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