When financial experts think of economic indicators, they often look at variables like ongoing increases in the stock market, building permits and retail sales to form their forecast of the nation’s resources.
To determine the historic trends, they examine factors such as interest rates, corporate profits and labor costs.
Well, there appears to be another indicator — the number of employed sports officials.
As odd as that may seem, a rise in the number of registered officials correlates to when the country is in a recession. Anecdotally, that is something many state association officials have long suspected.
A downturn in the economy means more unemployed workers who are looking for full- or part-time work.
Referee magazine analyzed sports official registration data provided by four states: Alabama, Michigan, Ohio and Washington. Data was provided by each of these states regarding registration for all officials over the past 10 years.
The states were selected as a representative sample for the United States, and the 10-year time period reflected the economic bottoming out of the U.S. economy following the 2008 crash, and the ensuing steady economic recovery the past 4-5 years. In discussing the analysis of the data with experts, it was felt that this 10-year time frame would reflect an accurate trend to draw conclusions.
When it comes to economic indicators, there are two types that economists use to make their forecasts.
The first is leading indicators. These often change just prior to large economic adjustments and are used to predict future trends.
An example would be the price of copper. If orders for copper are rising, it indicates that industrial jobs are increasing and the economy will remain healthy.
The second is lagging indicators. These numbers reflect the economy’s historical performance and changes to these can only be recognized after an economic pattern or trend has already been established.
An example would be the unemployment ranks. If unemployment numbers rise, it means more and more people are searching for a way to feed their family or supplement their income. This is often when the number of registered sports officials begins to increase.
The chart below details the plotting of registration data juxtaposed against economic indicators. The lower the number, the better the economy. The number reflects the unemployment rate minus the gross domestic product (GDP).
For example, in 2010 the unemployment rate at 9.3 percent combined with a GDP of 2.6 percent makes the final number 6.7. In 2018, the unemployment rate was 3.9 percent and GDP was 4.2, reflecting a (-.3) final number (with a negative final number showing a stronger positive economy).
The graphed data shows a close continuous correlation between economic indicators and registration — as the economy bottoms out, officiating registration goes up; as the economy improves, registration declines.
Motivation to Officiate
Robert Doan, an associate professor and director of graduate studies at Charleston Southern University in North Charleston, S.C., who has presented on sports officiating data topics at NASO Summits, said for some the motivation to become a sports official is strictly extrinsic.
“They need the extra money and find this as a way they can have a second job,” said Doan, who is also an assigner for volleyball officials as well as a veteran college volleyball referee and baseball umpire. “In times of economic need, sports officiating is an enticing option.
“When the economy was bad I had new people coming up to me at church asking how to get involved (in volleyball officiating). They’re coming to me in need of extra money. And other officials I knew were coming to me to add another sport to earn a little extra cash.
“However, when the economy is well, recruiting (officials) is a lot more difficult,” he added.
Statistics bear out his statement. A cross section of data collected from four states — Alabama, Michigan, Minnesota and Washington — illustrates that when the nation is suffering economically there’s an influx of new people seeking to become sports officials.
“We can go back to 60 years of data that shows when the economy is down the number of officials is up,” said Mark Uyl, the executive director of the Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA). “Ten years ago we had an all-time high (12,772) in the number of officials. A decade later we’re down nearly 3,000 (9,816).”
In Alabama, the raw numbers are in line with the ups and downs of the economy. The state had 7,293 registered sports officials in the 2008-09 season. However, that figure fell to 6,369 in 2017-18 — a drop of 924.
“Our folks study data all the time. If you look at our data from 2007-10, we do attribute our spikes in the number of officials to the economy. It’s a trend throughout all our sports,” said Steve Savarese, executive director of the Alabama High School Athletic Association (AHSAA).
Starting in 2008-09, Minnesota began an uptick in its numbers that saw its registered officials climb from 8,189 to more than 8,800 from 2010-12. It has slowly decreased since then. In 2017-18 that total was down to 8,334.
It’s no different out west.
“There’s no doubt our highest numbers for officials have been during the recession and probably a little longer after that,” said Todd Stordahl, executive director of the Washington Officials Association (WOA).
The high point in Washington came in 2009-10 when 7,583 sports officials were registered with the WOA. At that point the numbers started to erode each year down to 6,154 in the 2017-18 sports season, a drop of 1,429 over that nine-year period. The difference means the state had an average loss of 159 officials per season.
“For some sports during that time, the numbers jumped up pretty good. However, once the economy got good again we’re back down to where we were before (the recession),” Stordahl said.
So, the problem has been identified. Now comes the hard part. How can state associations, colleges, high schools and youth leagues reverse this trend?
A Growing Problem
Recruiting and retaining officials is a growing challenge all across the nation.
“Back in the day there were maybe eight to 12 sports, now there’s like 30 different high school sports … like water polo, boys’ volleyball and lacrosse,” said Ted Robbins, longtime athletic director at Lincoln-Way West High School in New Lenox, Ill. “Everything keeps growing and adding on. That’s great for the kids but it puts a demand on getting people to officiate them.”
The scarcity of officials has caused athletic directors to occasionally adjust their teams’ schedules during the season. Robbins said it’s particularly bad in the spring when the weather can cause havoc with outdoor events.
As Rich Piatchek, a retired high school AD and currently an Illinois High School Association (IHSA) state finals coordinator, noted, “It would be nice if we could get back to the days when there were more officials than there were contests.”
Which begs the question: Is there a way to entice more people to become sports officials?
The handful of states surveyed took some innovative steps to try to reverse this economic trend and keep their supply of officials on the rise.
Here’s a closer look at what these organizations are doing:
Of all the data the AHSAA scours, there is one number that sticks out.
“The most important number is the mean age of our officials, which is about 50 years old,” Savarese said.
To lower that age and get a new generation involved, the AHSAA has gotten together with the State Department of Education to approve an accredited high school class in sports officiating.
“We have hundreds of students who take a year-long class on sports officiating,” Savarese said. “It’s been very successful in our state.”
He noted that there is also a program that gets returning military involved in officiating.
Mark Jones, AHSAA director of officials, added, “We have several junior colleges and universities who have sports officiating classes as well. It’s one of the biggest factors in recruiting officials. This is where we get a lot of our young, good officials.”
Social Media Push
Uyl said the MHSAA is trying to promote officiating on social media, like Instagram.
“We’re trying to get officials when they’re out working to take some photos and post them. I know when I’m at a game I try to take some photos of the officials and post them to help promote officiating,” Uyl said. “We’re trying to create a public awareness of the benefits of officiating. We’re trying to change the culture and getting younger people involved.”
It’s similar in Minnesota.
“There are a lot more things for young people to do now and officiating is not top on their lists. So we have to go where they are. They’re spending their time in the social media sphere … Twitter, Instagram,” said Jason Nickleby, Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL) coordinator of officials. “The approach is to promote the positives of officiating to the next generation on social media platforms.”
Money & Expectations
Nickleby said the MSHSL started a program in the 2016-17 sports season to stimulate its number of registered officials. It was a simple but effective approach.
“We dropped the registration fee from $50 to $15 for first-year officials and $30 for second-year officials,” Nickleby said. “We lowered the (financial) barrier. Since then, we have a record number of new officials in almost every program.”
Illinois is also leaning on finances as a way to entice the young to join the sports officials fraternity.
Piatchek said the IHSA has gone to free registration for those just graduating high school.
The WOA serves as an organization that oversees and provides guidelines for local officiating organizations throughout the state of Washington. It tries to provide help in recruiting and retaining officials.
One change Stordahl is implementing in the WOA to help reverse the trend of declining numbers is quite simple — setting up new officials with realistic expectations and goals.
“We have to change the way some view the officiating ‘game,’” he said. “It’s not all about how fast you can move up to officiate a high school state tournament or move up to the college level.”
Stordahl said new officials need to focus on other aspects of the job like relationships with the other officials and the respect of the schools and community.
“The majority of our officials are doing it for their passion of the sport and for their community,” he said, adding, “it’s about becoming something bigger than yourself.”
Once officials have been recruited it becomes important to show them they’re appreciated. Minnesota initiated its “Thank A Ref” program in 2017.
“We have the schools take photos of the officials during events and put them on Twitter,” Nickleby said. “We also ask them to make an announcement during the event to say thank you.”
Alabama just began a recognition program. At the state high school football championships in December, the AHSAA showed a video on the huge scoreboards at both the University of Alabama’s Bryant-Denny Stadium and Auburn University’s Jordan-Hare Stadium honoring the officials in that particular game as well as other Alabama officials. By doing so “we hope to create a positive conversation about sports officials,” Savarese said.
If there’s one thing we know about the U.S. economy, it’s like the wind — it can blow in any direction. All the organizations that rely on a solid pool of sports officials — state associations, colleges, high schools, youth leagues — should not let their guard down if the country’s economy begins to take a nosedive.
While the trend of an uptick in the number of registered officials is likely to continue when the economy worsens, those organizations can’t afford to be sedentary. They need to remain active in finding new and innovative ways to spread the news about the benefits and strengths of sports officiating.
This is especially true when you consider two additional factors outside the rise and fall of the national economy — the increase of the number of sports on the high school level and the growing average age of sports officials.
In Michigan, the average age of its officials 10 years ago was 44.87. Over the last decade that figure rose to 48.57 in the 2017-18 sports season. That number is very much the norm in other states across the country.
“We don’t see a lot of longevity in a lot of aspects of sports nowadays; coaches don’t coach as long and officials don’t officiate as long,” said Piatchek, a longtime high school athletic director. “Over the last 25 years we’ve seen a lot of veteran officials aging out and there are limited replacements to take their spots.”
Organizations will need to remain active in order to ensure there are enough officials for all the games.
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