The statistics are staggering. Iowa has avoided the mass cancellations and postponements of games that plague other states, but a shortage of registered officials for high school athletics hurts in a place known nationally for exceptional participation and tradition.
From 2007 to 2017, the IHSAA recorded a 12 percent decrease in its total number of registered officials across the seven sports – basketball, baseball, football, soccer, swimming, track and field, and wrestling – that require assigned officials for postseason events. And the outlook is worse long-term, especially for sports with an aging officials’ population.
Across all sports, the IHSAA saw 910 officials opt to not renew their registration in the 2017-18 school year. And 351 of those had signed up for the first time in 2016-17.
According to age data compiled in 2016, around 40 percent of IHSAA registered officials were over the age of 50. In track and field (86%) and swimming (70%) those percentages skyrocketed, while football (48%) and basketball (45%) were working with older populations as well.
“I can see the potential for this decline to become a critical issue in the next three to five years,” IHSAA director of officials Lewie Curtis said.
So, how can our state ensure interscholastic athletics have the arbiters of rules and sportsmanship they absolutely need? Is there a way to help this essential yet largely thankless job thrive in the future?
It starts by adding one official at a time.
What is Add One?
The strategies for combating officiating’s population slide vary by state, but the message stays the same: recruit and retain. New talent needs to be brought in. Men and women with experience need to be given a reason to stick around.
Iowa is no different in this regard, especially as young and old officials decide to step away due to busy schedules, financial considerations, family responsibilities, and, unfortunately, negative interactions with fans, coaches, and players.
“One of the most difficult things to do in officiating, whether it’s the first game you’ve ever done or the last one after a 50-year career, is knowing how to handle people,” said Gary Christiansen, an NFHS Hall of Fame official from Mason City who has called state championship games in four different high school sports. “Such a big part of the job is understanding how to manage the game and deal with the people. That’s not getting any easier. But it comes with time and experience and hard work and understanding the psychology of sports.”
But the benefits that officiating can provide – community service, staying around sports, mentoring opportunities, physical fitness, friendships, new athletic challenges, and the list goes on – still outweigh those negatives for the more than 4,500 registered officials the IHSAA had in 2017.
Highlighting those motivations give current officials a legitimate opportunity to bring in new ones. And data shows that officials asking their friends, neighbors, and co-workers to try out officiating is the most effective way to recruit first-timers.
“Officiating is a difficult avocation, but a big part of it is building life skills for yourselves and others,” Christiansen said. “If you’re going to be successful in any field, it’s about developing and learning how to deal with the people around you. Whether they’re athletes, coaches, fans, or other officials, you want them to grow as people and understand that what you learn from an event is more than the final score.”
The IHSAA’s latest push to successfully recruit and retain registered officials is “Add One.” The promotions have appeared this year in state tournament programs and a few posters and social media posts, and will continue to expand as sports seasons roll on.
The premise is simple: If every official, administrator, or coach at the high school and junior high level in Iowa can recommend or refer just one person to join the ranks of registered officials, the field would receive a
much-needed boost. Actually accomplishing that goal may prove to be more difficult.
Laura Brooker has been the voice on the phone or face at the desk for IHSAA officials for 15 years. The IHSAA’s assistant to the director of officials has seen once-steady numbers rise briefly at the end of the
last decade only to drop off dramatically in this one.
“Retaining officials is our biggest challenge,” Brooker said. “We get them coming in, but they just don’t stay. Combine that with the fact that we have a lot of officials who are getting close to retirement, and it’s
Brooker and Curtis constantly communicate to carry out their day-to-day administrative duties, but many of their conversations end up as philosophical discussions about how they can improve the officiating
experience statewide from their small corner of the office.
Lately, that has meant getting their minds around just how widespread their problem is. If officials are walking out the door faster than they come in, what can the IHSAA – or any other officials’ association – do to turn that around?
“The prevailing thought has been to go after tons of high school and college-aged kids,” Curtis said. “I don’t disagree with that, but the solution for a turnaround is going to take two things, in my opinion.
“First: We have to recruit the middle of the population, from 30-somethings on up to 40- and 45-year-olds. They’re mostly solid, they might have families, a job, a house, and know where they’re going to be in five
years. That’s important for us. Secondly: We have to identify why officials are leaving at an early age and try to correct the problems. Once we recruit them and get them to do it, how can we keep them?”
Those concerns broaden the “Add One” mission. Simply expanding the current officiating pool won’t be enough to improve the job and the experience it provides.
The outreach has to be personal and come from all levels of officiating. The opportunities have to be worth the effort that so many men and women are making to get to games. That’s all part of what a successful “Add One” campaign could bring.
“For me, ‘Add One’ is not just about getting people to sign up,” Curtis said, “because it’s also about finding ways for them to want to come back.”
Why Add One?
Not all sports are officiated equally.
That’s not to say one sport is better than another, or that the spectator shouting, “Call it both ways!” is actually behaving appropriately, but it is reality given the different responsibilities and demands of each activity.
Football uses five people to form a varsity crew. Wrestling can be officiated by an individual for much of the regular season. Soccer assigns varied tasks to three or four officials, with the center referee requiring enormous endurance to follow the action. Meanwhile, swimming meets are often fortunate to find starters and timers; the IHSAA had just 51 active registered swimming officials statewide in 2017.
“There are not good numbers in any sport, really,” Curtis said. “But some offer mild stability.
“Unfortunately, swimming and track could be problematic in a short period of time because of the low numbers we have, the older population, and a low interest from people coming into officiating to go into those sports.”
The IHSAA began keeping count of its registered officials in 1979-80, with 4,241 tallied in total across baseball, basketball, football, track and field, and wrestling. The initial list created a baseline for executive director Bernie Saggau’s operation.
That school year, 726 officials were registered for wrestling. By 2017, that number was cut exactly in half to 363. Track and field has seen a similar decline – 356 to 187 – and baseball went from 1,539 at the start to under 1,000 registered officials for the first time in 2015.
Each of those drops presents its own set of challenges. Team duals are being exchanged for increasingly massive tournaments in high school wrestling, which necessitate more officials going to one place for one event. Baseball’s sheer number of games at the varsity and sub-varsity levels can be difficult to staff in the summer. And the track and swimming populations are dwindling and aging simultaneously, which may stymy any growth those sports can muster. Of the 52 active officials in the 2017-18 swimming season, only two of them were under the age of 35.
Football and basketball have literally thousands more officials than swimming does for the IHSAA, although even those powerhouse sports are seeing a slow decline. Curtis considers basketball the steadiest of the IHSAA’s officiating offerings, with the move from two-person crews to three-person crews extending many officials’ careers.
Football may be more difficult to predict. The king of fall Friday nights still boasts around 20,000 high school participants and officials combined. But the number of IHSAA student- athletes playing football dropped 22 percent between 2007 and 2016, and aging officiating crews often mean that when a retirement occurs, it takes five registered officials with it.
“I think football’s officiating could be on the verge of having a big, big problem,” Curtis said. “A crew of five usually leaves at the same time, which leaves a huge void and forces new people to learn certain jobs they may not necessarily know or have a mentor for.”
Soccer remains the only sport the IHSAA registers officials for that has shown a sustainable increase over the last 20 years. It also brings together officials from more diverse backgrounds than other sports, and accounts for almost 10 percent of the IHSAA’s total officiating population.
Perhaps “the world’s game” can offer insights that benefits officials in other activities, too. Giving back to communities and young people is why many officials got started, anyway.
“My theory has always been that high school and middle school athletics are designed to be part of the educational process,” Christiansen said. “Very few people are going to go and play and participate in sports beyond high school. But you have to learn how to win and learn how to lose. It’s part of life.”
How to Add One
The next step is going to take time and work across multiple organizations. It’s the task of improving the overall experience of officiating to draw and keep dedicated individuals involved for years to come. The IHSAA plans to start with a multi-pronged approach.
Mentoring: According to a vast 2017 survey by the National Association of Sports Officials and published by “Referee” magazine, mentoring new officials is not why many people choose to get involved with officiating, but it is the top reason why they decide to stick around. Curtis thinks the IHSAA can and will do more to improve mentorship opportunities, starting with efforts in wrestling and baseball this school year.
“The feedback we’ve received so far is that the programs have been very helpful,” Curtis, who doubles as the IHSAA’s wrestling administrator, said. “It’s up to us to continue to offer them and try and expand them and gather more information from officials on ways we can make this better for them.”
For the first time this fall, a “new officials clinic” was held for wrestling registrants, allowing first, second, or third year refs to get instruction, guidance, and hands-on mechanics experience with veteran officials and coaches at sessions in Cedar Rapids and Des Moines. The plan is to continue them in different cities and districts each year.
In baseball, the IHSAA recently connected new umpires with experienced and credentialed ones for a voluntary program. The intention is for them to meet up, discuss the job, or even work sub-varsity games together. It isn’t a specially designed program and it hasn’t been expanded across all sports yet, but it’s a start.
Working with officials and coaches from other levels, be it club, youth, or college and professional programs, can also promote beneficial camps and networking experiences.
Sportsmanship: Anyone who attends interscholastic athletic events should know why improving sportsmanship across Iowa is essential. A culture of criticism from coaches, spectators, and even student-athletes makes officiating even more difficult than it already is, and often forgets that officials are our neighbors and friends.
“I always thought that people who really want to officiate or judge officials should get involved at the middle school or youth level,” Christiansen said. “If they can survive that, they’re either buying their way to heaven or becoming a pretty good official in the process.”
The NASO results state 57 percent of officials surveyed believe sportsmanship is getting worse nationwide, and parents of youth and high school players were the top pick for the group who causes the most problems at games. For years, the IHSAA has asked member schools and spectators to “Support Sportsmanship” at all sanctioned events, but manners frequently go out the window once a match starts.
“A more effective partnership with our schools to make sportsmanship a priority from players, coaches, and spectators is absolutely needed,” Curtis said.
Taking responsibility for the actions of yourself, your team, and your fans can help create a positive athletic environment at all levels.
Convenience: The IHSAA has tried to streamline the process of signing up to officiate for the first time – 1. Be high school-age or older; 2. Register online; 3. Score 75 percent or higher on an open-book exam; 4. Pay annual fees for licensing – but the rest of the gig’s responsibilities fall on those potential referees.
Brooker believes a more cohesive network of officials’ associations and assignors could help the IHSAA and IGHSAU when it comes to scheduling and registration. Curtis says a shared system with the IGHSAU would be preferred with coed sports, allowing officials to save money and time instead of paying and registering double for boys’ and girls’ basketball, soccer, swimming, etc.
Then, setting up new officials for success within their communities often requires coordination.
“Something I’ve had several people say is that they pay the fees for a few years, but they just have a hard time getting games,” Brooker said. “They talk about the ‘old boys’ club’ quite a bit, and it’s in certain areas of the state where they give veteran officials better and more games. Some newer people don’t feel like they have a chance.”
Getting games at any level is far from guaranteed, and the job’s environment and payment can be different from school to school. Uniformity and hospitality from administrators and coaches can provide the consistency and positivity many officials seek from a physically- demanding part-time endeavor.
Enjoyment: Want good people to get involved with officiating? Remember they’re human and try to make each game a positive experience..
“I took on every night, every game as a challenge,” former IHSAA director of officials and 2018 NFHS Hall of Fame selection Roger Barr said this month in an interview with Iowa Public Radio. “How good can I be? Can I be at my best and work for the kids and work for the coaches?
“By no means did I ever work a perfect game, but I enjoyed working with the kids, I enjoyed working with the coaches, and I enjoyed the job. I developed a passion for it and really looked forward to working.”
The NASO’s survey and most conversations with officials reveal a love of sports was the main reason they got started in officiating. Many former athletes want to stay around athletics. Coaching isn’t for everyone, and officiating offers schedule flexibility with the chance to make some money after school or work.
“What I enjoyed the most were the relationships I had with the fellow umpires and officials,” Curtis said. “And I just love athletics. It was a way to be around the game more. It also challenged me to learn the game from a different perspective. I always felt like I became a better coach because I had umpired.”
But if the job isn’t fun, well, the aforementioned downsides can pile up and cause capable men and women to pursue other opportunities.
Christiansen hopes interested individuals stick around long enough to work at it. And that’s what it will take for the IHSAA and all prospective new officials to “Add One” in the future.
“When I started in the late 1960s, I thought I would be officiating in the NFL within six months,” Christiansen said. “Young people just have to be patient and give themselves a chance as officials. Then, coaches and parents have to help give them that chance. That’s tough to do.”