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Local schools, WIAA make push to recruit prep sports officials

The WIAA said 34% of sports officials in the state have stepped away from officiating since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

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Referee John Gidley watches as Northwestern’s Bennett Nelson (11) passes the ball up the court past Cameron’s Richie Murphy (3) in the first half of the game in Maple in February 2021. Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
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The activities directors at Douglas County’s high schools knew the shortage of officials for sporting events was starting to impact their programs before they attended area meetings hosted by the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association a few weeks ago.

But until then, they said they didn’t realize how widespread and dire the issue is across the state.

“I knew COVID had an impact,” said Brian Smith, activities director at Northwestern High School in Maple. “I knew this was out there, but — wow. It’s a lot.”

Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the WIAA had 9,249 registered officials across all sports, said Kate Peterson Abiad, an assistant director at the WIAA. As of Aug. 1, that number dropped to 6,071 — a 34% decrease.

Covering the games

Matt Solberg, of the Tri-State Officials Association, started officiating in college to earn extra money and stay connected to the sports he enjoys — baseball and basketball.

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But last spring was rough. The Tri-State Officials Association usually has 70-75 registered officials for baseball and softball who work games in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

In 2021, they had 35.

That meant the officials who remained worked more games than ever before.

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Referees huddle up to talk over a penalty during Northwestern’s game with Rice Lake in Maple in August 2021. Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

The 34-year-old and his wife welcomed their first child earlier this year. Going into the season, he said he hoped to work two games a week to be able to spend time with them. He ended up umpiring much more softball than previous years, and with softball and baseball combined, he said he often worked six days per week.

“There weren’t enough people, and if I said no, those games would not occur,” he said.

He’s worried the officials who are left will get burned out if they don’t get help soon.

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“It’s already bad, and it’s going to get worse. There’s going to come a time and a place where kids won’t get to play,” Solberg said. “We can’t have another spring like we did last year and expect 35 guys to cover 900 games.”

To make sure games are covered, Smith and Superior High School activities director Ella Olson said they’ve had to move some games to different nights.

But at some point, that may not be enough.

“It’s scary because our kids are going to start losing opportunities,” Olson said.

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First referee Trevor Sundquist watches the action as Proctor’s Payton Rodberg (4) taps the ball over the net in front of Superior’s Makayla McMeekin (7) in the first set of the match in Superior on Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021. Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Beyond COVID-19

Peterson Abaid said the pandemic played a role in the number of officials who chose to step away from the craft, for sure, but there were other factors as well.

The majority of officials tend to be older people, and there aren’t enough young people stepping in to replace them, said Nate Ahlberg, activities director at Solon Springs School.

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Another factor is fan behavior.

Peterson Abiad pointed to a nationwide survey of 17,487 officials conducted by the National Association of Sports Officials that showed 75% of respondents stopped officiating because of adult behavior.

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Referee Jarrod Meyer keeps an eye on the action between Cameron and Northwestern in the first half of the game in Maple in February 2021. Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

That statistic stuck with Smith.

“People gotta lay off these officials,” he said.

Ahlberg said he felt the same.

“Parents need to do their share to make sure officials want to come back to their building,” he said.

In his experience, Solberg said high school games offer more protection for officials than youth games, but the abuse should stop, period.

“Youth sports are awful that way. Parents feel entitled that ‘If I’m not yelling at the umpire, not yelling at the referee, then I’m not doing my kid justice,’ and that’s what’s killing our officiating crew.

“When you work a high school game you actually have protection — you have site supervisors, you have partners who can go to bat for you and you’re compensated significantly better,” he said.

The WIAA has been reminding the public that people who referee or umpire games are in a work environment and should be treated with respect, Peterson Abiad said.

“Especially at the younger stages, they are learning how to become a good official, and our expectations are that they need to be perfect when our kids are 10, 11 and 12 years old. They’re learning how to officiate just like our kids are learning how to play,” she said.

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Referee Ray Kosey throws the ball up for the tip-off as Crosby-Ironton visits Esko for a playoff game in March 2021. Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Recruiting efforts

As a result of the shortage, the WIAA and school districts throughout the state are taking action.

Local officials, including Solberg, visited Superior High School on Thursday, Oct. 14, to give students and staff information about becoming officials. Solberg said he's reached out to activities directors throughout the region about hosting similar events at their schools. The Tri-State Officials Association also plans to do more recruiting at universities throughout the Twin Ports.

Former officials can register to work games again from Oct. 15-31 without paying a late fee to the WIAA, Peterson Abiad said.

Furthermore, people who are currently or who have served in the military can register free of charge for their first two years.

The WIAA is also getting the word out on social media about the shortage, among other initiatives.

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Referee Matt Solberg watches the action as Cloquet visits Duluth East in 2019. Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Training and retaining officials

Mentorship is a huge part of the process.

Solberg said a veteran will go through the required test with new officials ahead of time. Once they pass the test and head to their first game, the veteran official working with a new recruit will meet every half-inning during a baseball game, for example, to talk about how the previous half-inning went.

On the retention side, welcoming officials is one way school districts can help, Peterson Abiad said. Things like making sure someone greets them when they arrive for a game and showing them to their locker room go a long way.

Furthermore, the WIAA is trying to get legislation passed that would protect officials in the event they were physically assaulted. A total of 24 states have similar laws, Peterson Abiad said.

The camaraderie among officials is one of the benefits, along with staying connected to a sport and giving back to the community, Solberg said.

There’s also a feeling of accomplishment when they get a call right.

“When you know definitively you got that call right, there's some pride in that," he said.

To learn more

Anyone interested in becoming an official can reach out to activities directors at any of the three high schools in Douglas County:

To host an information session on officiating in your community, contact Matt Solberg of the Tri-State Officials Association at msolberg@proctor.k12.mn.us .

More information is also available at the WIAA website, www.wiaawi.org , under the “Officials” tab.

Jen Zettel-Vandenhouten is the regional editor for Duluth Media Group, overseeing the Cloquet Pine Journal and the Superior Telegram.
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