POLK COUNTY — Throughout the state of Oregon and across all sports at the high school levels, finding enough referees is proving to be a big challenge.
“It’s all across the country, not just Oregon,” Jack Folliard, executive director of the Oregon Athletic Officials Association, said.
Oregon has seen its pool of referees decrease significantly.
Folliard said during the 2010-11 school year, there were 3,407 individual officials. Last school year, that number shrunk to 2,866 — a decline that has affected sports across the board.
Folliard said ideally the number of referees across all sports would be 3,500-4,000.
“We always have a specific amount of attrition each year,” Folliard said. “The difference is we’re not filling the bucket so to speak.”
Folliard said it’s hard to pinpoint just what has caused the decline — though he does have his theories on what may be contributing to it.
“Society has changed,” he said. “I think people are much more active with families and other things. Refs have to start at the freshman level. That means mostly 4 p.m. games, so they’d have to get off work earlier. Another reason, frankly, is I think there’s more abuse of officials by parents and fans. It’s not overwhelming, but it’s certainly out there.”
There will always be enough refs to cover varsity games, Folliard said, but it’s the earlier games that see the biggest strain.
“If you think about basketball for example, there’s a varsity game of course,” Folliard said. “But there’s also a junior varsity game. Some schools have two JV squads and a freshman team. You can have two or three sub varsity games in one night.”
Dallas athletic director Tim Larson said they have not had to cancel games due to a shortage of available refs, but have had to stack soccer matches or move to a different day.
It’s becoming more common in some parts of the state for a referee crew to work a freshman or JV game and a varsity game.
That can cause burnout among refs.
“The average age of a ref is 47 years old,” Folliard said. “That’s creeping up, too, and can be hard for the crews, especially if you have a sport like football or basketball where there’s quite a bit of running involved.”
Some ref crews have to travel long distances to help cover games outside of their normal areas, and refs are asked to cover more and more games throughout the week.
Steve Bulen, director of the Salem Basketball Officials Association, saw an increase of 10 refs this year to 158 — the first time he’s seen any increase in refs in three years.
Even still, the association is in a precarious spot.
“The biggest challenge is finding officials to work afternoon games,” Bulen said. “On very busy days, I have had to tell schools I don’t have enough officials to service their games. Not often, but if I don’t get the numbers up, it will be more frequent.”
Ken Woods, commissioner of the Salem Football Officials Association, had 120 football officials five years ago. Last season, that number had dwindled to 87.
The SFOA serves 35 high schools, 36 middle schools and a number of youth football programs, including Central, Dallas and Perrydale.
Without a fix in sight, the situation for high school football could become dire in the near future.
“I expect in 2017-18 you will see some varsity and some sub-varsity football games either get cancelled or moved to Saturdays due to the shortage of football officials,” Woods said. “It almost happened last year, and I expect the shortage to continue before it turns around.”
The question facing the OAOA is how to attract new refs.
“It is a tough job and people don’t like being yelled at,” Bulen said.
Folliard said they recruit heavily among college students looking to earn a little extra money and have asked athletic directors to ask recently graduated students, especially athletes, about becoming refs.
“We need both men and women who have a knowledge of the game,” Bulen said. “The trend can be reversed, but it will take a combined effort between the (referee) associations and the schools as well as OSAA.”
Woods believes all the recruiting in the world will do little good if there aren’t a few fundamental changes.
“People don’t realize the countless hours that officials spend attending conferences, clinics and classroom training each year,” Woods said. “We need to increase pay at all levels to entice people to want to officiate and the spectators, fans, parents, coaches and players need to treat officials with respect.”
For now, attempts to draw in new refs haven’t been successful, and for athletes on the sub-varsity levels, the continued decrease in refs could have major consequences.
“We’re at the edge where sometimes the individuals responsible for assigning refs will get a schedule from a school for, say, a freshman team, and say I can’t service a game on that date, you have to change it,” Folliard said. “If this trend continues, games will be canceled.”