What Youth Sports Leaders Can do About the Referee Shortage
By Melissa Wickes
June 8, 2023
Referees are calling it quits at a historical rate and it’s drastically affecting both high school and youth sports. While COVID has significantly affected youth sports—and contributed to the referee shortage as a result—that’s actually not the main cause. It’s parent, coach, and fan behavior.
Unfortunately, the way fans and coaches behave at youth sports games is a deep-rooted issue that has resulted from the society we live in today and can’t exactly be solved in a season. But there are some things you, as a youth sports leader, can do to create a better environment for kids to play in and for officials to want to be a part of once again.
What’s causing the referee shortage?
Bill Wickes, who has been a youth, high school, and adult basketball referee for 40 years and a girls youth and high school lacrosse referee for 15 years, has experienced a very small influx of younger officials in the last few years.
“When I go to meetings, everyone is my age [60+],” he says. “People don’t think it’s worth it to take the abuse, so they find other ways to make money.”
It’s important to note that officials are usually independent contractors—so they have to cover all of their own employment taxes rather than having the employer cover some of it. Not to mention many organizations require officials to pay dues, take tests, and attend many meetings.
“It becomes onerous and people don’t want to do it,” says Bill.
Combine these employment hurdles with parent, coach, and player abuse, and you have a referee shortage. The environment in which kids play sports has changed dramatically over the last few years. It used to be about who is the best athlete, but with the rise in pay-to-play programs and participation costs in general, parents expect a more professionalized youth sports experience regardless of their child’s skill level; and they get frustrated when they feel they’re getting less than that.
The frustration spills onto the field and makes for coaches with tempers who blow up at undeserving officials.
Not to mention, the more intense parents and coaches get about scholarships and professionalization, the less fun it is for kids. The reality is, around 7% of high school athletes go on to play a varsity sport in college—and only 2% of that number go on to be professional athletes.
“Perhaps people have lost a little bit of perspective as to what the end game is,” says Bill. “It needs to be more geared towards participation and that includes competition—but not where you think you have free rein to take out your frustration on an official. The grown ups need to remember it’s about the kids—or there will be no one willing to officiate the games.”
What can youth sports leaders do?
Fans being banned from sports games is a tale as old as time.
“I can think back to 1985 when they didn’t let any fans in the gym—it’s not a new solution, but the problem has gotten worse,” says Bill. “I recently had to throw a parent out of a third grade lacrosse game.”
He finds that in leagues with more rules—like the Catholic Youth Organization (CYO)—he sees fewer issues between parents, coaches, and officials.
New York City public high schools have even gone as far as to ban visiting fans at games. While this may seem like a drastic move, threatening to do so may motivate parents to change their behavior. No parent wants to miss their kid playing. Simply put, rules do work.
You can also remind the coaches in your program why they do what they do in the first place. That includes giving coaches a say in program design, helping them focus on their youth sports legacy, balancing their expectations, and reminding them to think back on their own youth sports experience.
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