Referee, umpire shortage putting strain on school sports

From professional basketball's biggest stars to Little League fields, it's hard out there to be a referee or umpire. There just aren’t enough people signing up to call the shots, and it's now threatening high school sports.

Leaders in the field say you've got to have thick skin.

“Half the stands love you every time you blow the whistle and the other half hates you,” said Terrell Dukes, the president of the Pinellas Area Referees Basketball Officials Association.

Hostile fans, parents, and even players add to why some don’t want the job. Currently, there is a nationwide shortage of people signing up to officiate high school sports.

Dukes referees basketball and football games in Pinellas County. Just to cover games, he said most referees work at least three sports and two games in one day.

“We probably have about 80 officials, and we probably need about 180 to effectively book the games where officials have that break and don't feel so run down,” said Dukes.

The Florida High School Athletic Association said a lot of factors contribute to the problem, including low pay and having to spend about $300 to become a referee or umpire before officiating a game.

“We don't do it because we get a ton of money,” said Dukes.

FHSAA said the number of people registering to become sporting officials dropped over the past five years, from 8,352 officials registered in the 2014-2015 school year to 7,838 officials registered in the 2018-2019 school year. The state is already seeing the impact.

“Some games, instead of playing Friday nights, some areas are putting them on different days of the week like a Thursday or a Saturday,” said Jeremy Hernandez, the assistant director of officials for FHSAA. “Your newer officials want those big-time games, and when they're not getting it after that first two or three years, they are just kind of calling it quits from that as well.”

So to help get the numbers back up, referee groups said sports leaders must focus on retaining who they have and do more training to prepare newer people.

“Some of the things we're doing in Pinellas is just trying to get some of our younger officials prepared so we can get that retention piece more solidified,” said Dukes. “It would definitely require more patience and these local associations spending more time with that new group. That would help.”

Other things adding to the problem include more new schools being built, new sports added like ice hockey or girls flag football, and long-time sporting officials retiring. All of those factors stretch referee groups thin.

Groups in the Bay Area are all looking for new people who are willing to put in the work.