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Local Officials Weigh in on the Referree Shortage

Fridays are for football! Well, they used to be. If you have a kid in high school, you may be surprised to see games happening on Thursdays and Saturdays. Sometimes even on an errant Tuesday. Why is this happening? Why are games getting spread out to different days and why is it happening more often?

It has become the only option in many cases. Simply put, there aren’t enough officials to referee every game every Friday, so they are being spread around and rescheduled. But this is only a temporary solution to a growing problem. A problem that will eventually exceed alternate game days and smart planning.

50,000 referees and umpires, according to the National Federation of State High School Association, that’s how many officials have left since the 2018-2019 season.

I sat down and had an interview with Jeremy Carney, Rob Kueneman, and Dave Klundt, all officials with over 100 years total of combined experience, to learn more about this ongoing issue that has hit us just as hard as anywhere else in the country.

Currently, officials’ pay ranges from $30 per game for youth sports all the way up to $50-$60 per game for hockey officials. However, Carney, Klundt, and Kueneman don’t believe that the amount of pay is the reason we are seeing declining numbers of officials.

“There is the allure to some degree, to a young person, right? I can spend my Saturday working a youth tournament and I can walk away with a good chunk of money from one day’s work,” Carney said. “When you get past the point of seeing this as just for money and you actually want to become a good official, there’s the break point.”

Jeremy Carney could teach us all about becoming a good official as he has 28 years of experience officiating football and basketball. According to Klundt, who has 42 years of experience as a sports official with a career that covers basketball, baseball, football, and softball at the high school and college levels, one major culprit may be the sheer number of games being added to the season.

"We're an unwanted necessity."

“When I started officiating, there was no such thing as travel basketball,” Klundt said. There was no such thing as Junior Olympics volleyball. “There wasn’t even hardly any USA travel hockey. Instead of schools running up little third, fourth, fifth, and sixth-grade programs of whatever sport and playing a handful of games and focusing on skills development, a lot of these organizations have started pushing these kids to play more and more and more games while traveling all over the place to play these games. So you’ve added hundreds upon hundreds of games for youth that never existed before.”

All three also agree that sometimes, life just takes over. A referee may have children who are now in their own sporting events and when it comes down to it, they are not willing to miss their child’s events.

“With all the colleges here, we’ll get some kids who will try it in college,” Kueneman said. “It’s a good part-time job. Then they move away and they don’t have that local connection and a local association to get back into it. Or they get their full-time job and don’t have as much time for it.”

Rob Kueneman is a big name in the world of sporting officials. An outlier from Klundt and Carney, this is Kueneman’s full-time job. He is the executive director of the High Plains Officials Consortium (HPOC) and has 32 years of experience. The HPOC is responsible for the assignment of sporting officials.

As is the case with most issues, money has had a serious impact on officials, whether that cost stems from the cost of entry, with some baseball umpires paying as much as $500 just to get all of the gear necessary to officiate their first game, or the cost the parents are paying for their children to participate. According to ESPN, baseball has an average annual cost of $660. Swimming? $786. And ice hockey has an average annual cost of a whopping $2,582. Parents are expecting an expert caliber of official, and with the costs they are paying, those expectations are high and it can cause blood to run hot at some games.

The lack of pay, the increase in the number of games, the lack of leadership, and the cost of entry were all things that Carney, Kueneman, and Kludt quoted as possible reasons for the shortage. But all three agreed on one thing; the biggest reason for the shockingly low number of officials is because of confrontations between officials and parents, coaches, and even players.

Kueneman, Carney, and Klundt attest that they have all been harassed by parents and coaches alike.

“Little things like even wearing your wedding ring,” Klundt said. “Don’t wear it. That just added more fuel to the fire.”

All three of them agreed that people have a way of honing in on vulnerabilities while trying to get a reaction out of the officials.

Sometimes, however, it doesn’t stop at just a verbal confrontation. If you look up “referee assaulted,” the entire first page of search is littered with articles from the last year or so about officials being assaulted in some form or another.

So, what can we do about these problems? How do we get new officials to apply and seasoned officials coming back? How do we confront the issue of respecting the officials who keep our games going?

“We’re getting better but we don’t really have an avenue for recruiting,” says Kueneman, “I think we could do better, just going out talking to kids in school and highlighting the positive aspects of officiating outside of the game. The camaraderie, the friendships. The fraternity, you know?”

“I think there are things schools can do better and it starts with the coaches and administration and the culture they build around their programs,” Kueneman said. “The meeting they have with parents about expectations is important and it’s important to hold them to that.”

More recruitment would be great. Educating parents, players, and coaches on expectations from the game and the officials who keep them going would be even better. However, all of that needs to be built on a strong foundation of knowledge, education, and camaraderie.

All three men agree that one of the biggest benefactors of getting new officials to sign up and return for multiple seasons would be better mentorship. All three fondly remember their mentors and how they got into officiating. They believe that if young people entering the profession had someone they could rely on, to help them learn the ropes of not only the game but also the way of handling the fans and coaches, there would be less turnover in the field.

After sitting with these guys for an hour, I learned that my last question had a very easy answer.

Who should apply to become an official?

The answer?

“Anyone. If you have a love for the game,” Kueneman said.

“If you played the sport and want to still be around it, it’s a phenomenal way to stick around the sports,” Klundt said.

“Anyone. And multiple sports because there are a lot of transferable skills,” Carney said. “Rules are different but dealing with people, how I dealt with a coach or manager in baseball, that helped me with football and translates well.”

If you would like to become an official please use the contact information below!

Rob Kueneman,
Executive Director
High Plains Officials Consortium

Written by Gary Ussery

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