Officials are an important part of education-based athletics as they help ensure that fair competitions take place in a positive and safe environment. However, as veteran officials begin to retire, it has become increasingly challenging to recruit and retain new officials in recent years. The Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL) has rolled out two phases of a new recruiting and retention initiative to boost its number of officials in the past year.
MSHSL Coordinator of Officials Jason Nickleby said that although the initiative wasn’t needed for current operations, the state association wanted to be proactive in its efforts before it became a problem.
“We are not in crisis mode – we have hovered around 6,200 officials every year for the last several years,” Nickleby said. “However, we barely have enough to cover football, volleyball and soccer statewide. Our swimming and diving, as well as track and field, officials are more experienced and we are not replacing them at a high enough rate.”
During the first phase of this initiative, the MSHSL wanted to focus on recruiting new officials so it began offering incentives to current officials who referred a new official. In May, the registration fee for those first-time officials was lowered to $15, and will only be $30 if they return for a second year. Nickleby said he also works to assign an experienced official to help each new official with the registration process.
“We established this program to lower the barrier and make it an easier process for new officials to get involved,” Nickleby said. “Hopefully, that contact will develop into a long-term mentoring relationship.”
As a result of the first phase of the program, Nickleby said that 674 new officials have registered for the 2015-16 season, which is about 200 more than the same time last year. However, he said now the MSHSL must continue to work to retain them.
“This recruiting push has gone so well, we are planning on continuing this push for the foreseeable future,” Nickleby said. “We believe that the lower fee is getting people in the door, but a more substantial mentoring program will keep them here. We will be promoting mentoring programs and non-sport specific skills statewide as we move forward.”
Nickleby said in addition to mentoring and offering training clinics for new officials, the “Thank a Ref” campaign was created this fall to help recognize the state’s officials. Improving the perception of officials and their environment is just part of the second phase of the program.
“We hope that by lowering barriers, connecting them with veteran officials and improving sportsmanship will, in turn, get more people involved and, more importantly, keep them officiating for a long time,”
Nickleby said. “Research has shown that we lose officials in the first three years due to sportsmanship at games, and family and work obligations.
“We are working with our schools to do everything we can to improve the environment that these events are played in.”
Materials and suggestions were provided to schools to help them show their appreciation to the officials working their home events in September and October. The “Thank a Ref” program is set to continue in the winter and spring seasons.
As part of the MSHSL’s 100th anniversary, Nickleby said the initiative is called “Honoring the Past by Ensuring the Future” and one of the ways the MSHSL wants to honor the past is by encouraging its former athletes to get into officiating.
“We are working on reaching out to our current and former athletes with other ways to stay involved,” Nickleby said. “I come from a family of coaches, so I definitely understand that route and that is rewarding to be sure.
“However, officiating is equally rewarding and I encourage anyone out there who has an interest in the game to get involved anyway they can.”
Juli Doshan is the graphic arts technician/editorial assistant in the NFHS Publications and Communications Department.