Preseason practices for a new high school school sports year began Monday with great anticipation in the air.
Players are eager to play more important roles on their teams, while coaches begin to assemble the jigsaw puzzles of individual talent into units they hope will make their communities proud by the end of the season.
But there is anxiety as well, as a steady decrease in the number of game officials — caused in part by the abuse they receive from overzealous parents and spectators in those communities — makes it increasingly difficult to find enough officials to maintain order on Maine’s playing fields and athletic venues.
Attracting new officials has been a tough sell. One of the most significant obstacles is the verbal abuse officials experience during games or criticism posted publicly on social media forums.
“It’s daunting enough to become an official in this day and age when the crowd seems to think their opinions matter,” said Barbara Snapp, who recently retired as a soccer official after 28 years but remains a girls lacrosse official and treasurer of the Maine Women’s Lacrosse Officials Association.
“We’ve had officials who have done one season, and then they’re out because of the way the crowd or a coach has handled them.”
It’s not a given that athletic directors will have enough referees, judges and umpires to oversee the thousands of youth league, middle school and high school contests scheduled between late August and mid-June. Officials organizations for nearly every interscholastic sport in Maine have dealt with a shortage of members in recent years, leaving some sub-varsity contests understaffed. That might entail one official instead of two working a game, or having to reschedule games to dates when there are enough officials to provide full coverage.
The numbers game
Take Maine’s signature sport, high school basketball.
There were 566 members of the International Association of Approved Basketball Officials active statewide during the 2007-2008 season. Last winter, 496 officials — 451 men and 45 women — were active IAABO officials in Maine, according to Peter Webb, the state’s longtime basketball commissioner.
That’s a drop of nearly 13 percent in active membership during the last decade.
“It’s happening in all sports and it’s not just a Maine problem,” said Webb, who recently retired from a 17-year tenure as coordinator of rules interpreters for IAABO, the world’s largest basketball officials organization. “I do know that leaders in the sports have always made efforts to recruit, and it’s been turned up a notch or two recently.”
Chris Parker of Bangor, a longtime baseball and football official and since 2005 assigner for the Eastern Maine Baseball Umpires Association, said there has been an even more drastic drop in the number of officials within those ranks.
The EMBUA had 55 active umpires in 2016 but fielded only 45 last spring to serve 26 high school varsity programs and approximately 30 sub-varsity teams.
“From that you might have 29 to 32 umpires available on a given day for an average of 18 games,” Parker said. “That’s why you see a lot of middle-school games with just one person.”
That 19 percent, one-year drop nearly proved devastating when frequent rain wreaked havoc on the area’s baseball schedule last spring.
“There were 227 countable varsity games on the schedule and, by the Friday before Memorial Day, 32 percent of them had to be made up,” Parker said. “Overall this year between JV, middle school and varsity I had a makeup rate of 44 percent, and toward the end of the season if it was a middle-school game or even a junior varsity game that was postponed due to end-of-the-school-year activity, a lot of those games didn’t get played.”
Earlier this year, the National Federation of State High School Associations launched an initiative to attract more officials to high school sports after earlier acknowledging that the shortage of active officials has reached a crisis stage.
“The numbers are down,” Webb said. “There’s no question about it, and it’s a problem around the country.”
That verbal abuse can be a particular deterrent to newer officials who are still developing their skills and confidence in such a public vocation. Only two of every 10 officials return for their third season, according to an NFHS study.
That’s an 80 percent attrition rate during the first two years.
“It takes dozens of games for officials to become proficient; hundreds to become expert,” said Wayne Sanford, high school assigner for the Maine Lacrosse Officials Association, which covers boys lacrosse in the state. “New officials learn how to officiate on lower-level games where players and coaches are also unskilled. Unfortunately, parents and coaches seem to expect flawless officiating and, too frequently, become verbally abusive. This is a huge problem with respect to retention.”
In many cases, younger officials are paired with veterans in an effort to ease that pressure. The EMBUA, for instance, has established a mentorship program organized by veteran umpire Troy Lare that provides newer members feedback and support from more experienced arbiters.
“Because we don’t have the numbers where we can afford to lose a young guy who really wants to be an umpire, you try to protect them a little when you can,” Parker said.
The Eastern Maine chapter of the Maine Association of Football Officials has taken a similar approach toward providing support for novice officials.
“We’ve had a tough time retaining officials, and the feedback I’ve gotten is that they all work youth games early on and some have had pretty poor experiences with parents and, unfortunately, some of the youth coaches who haven’t been very civil,” said Doug Ferguson, a veteran Bangor-area official who teaches a class for prospective officials.
“That’s why we work real hard with trying to get veterans to work with the younger officials.”
Some newer officials don’t stay for the long term because of dissatisfaction with their pace of advancement to the varsity level.
“The newer official tends to not be patient in his or her progress,” Webb said. “They’re more apt to expect a varsity schedule very, very soon into their career. There’s nothing holding anyone back, but it’s a rare person who can be ready to officiate at the varsity level until their fourth or fifth year simply because of what’s involved in it and the difficulty of officiating.”
Compounding the low retention rates of newer officials in Maine is that like the state’s population, the officiating pool in many sports is aging.
The Maine Association of Football Officials numbers approximately 250 board-certified members (226 active), according to Allan Snell, MAFO secretary-treasurer and officials liaison to the Maine Principals’ Association football committee.
And while there’s not an extreme shortage of officials to work the state’s middle-school and high school games, stress is building.
MAFO’s Eastern Maine chapter has 64 members available to cover 19 area schools, though typically not all are available on a given Friday night, when most varsity games are played. Only Dexter, Mount View of Thorndike and Nokomis of Newport among the chapter’s coverage schools don’t have lighted fields, meaning their home games typically are played on Saturdays, when there aren’t nearly as many other contests.
“Because of that distribution we can basically cover 10 games on a Friday night, which would mean 50 officials, and much beyond that would be difficult,” Snell said.
Snell said while the annual football officiating class has proven popular at times — some 20 people took the course three years ago — it has produced only a modest number of new members in recent years.
Ferguson said nine hopefuls turned out Tuesday evening for the first night of the current 10-week course for prospective new Eastern Maine chapter officials.
“We could always use more,” said Snell, who estimates that 200 officials will be available to work the 39 high school varsity games that will be played statewide each weekend this fall.
“We’re going to reach the point, and I think this is true across the state, where the heavy end of the population is on the older side. We have a lot of guys in their 60s or approaching 60 years old, and several who are even older than that.”
Searching for solutions
Sports officials organizations around the country have been trying to address their ever-shrinking talent pools for years.
Minnesota, for instance, has discounted registration fees for new officials as well as those in in their second or third years, while Zanesville (Ohio) High School offers an officiating class as an elective course, according to the Zanesville Times Recorder.
Snell recalls nearly a decade ago when Maine football officials set up an information table at the state championship games in Portland in an effort to attract people who might be interested in joining their ranks.
Last winter, a similar effort was made by IAABO officials at high school basketball tournament sites in Bangor, Augusta and Portland.
Each produced minimal results.
While some sports rely on adults to handle officiating duties at virtually all age levels, other sports may benefit from already existing or homemade feeder systems.
Parker has sought to draw teenagers who umpire Little League baseball games toward the EMBUA in an effort to increase active membership to the 55 to 60 umpires he believes would provide an adequate safety net for his region.
“We’ve got some young blood coming up,” he said. “We just need to be able to keep them around.”
The lacrosse ranks are growing steadily both numerically and geographically. Bangor High School is set to field boys and girls varsity teams next spring and Brewer will add a boys club team in 2018.
The group has implemented its own junior officials training program and more than 100 high school student-athletes already have taken either the girls or boys lacrosse course.
“Our best source for new officials, but it’s a long-term pipeline, are the girls who are playing now,” Snapp said. “We’ve trained 66 teenagers to work girls lacrosse and they do games for third- and fourth-graders and fifth- and sixth-graders in some towns that have youth lacrosse programs.”
Seeking to tap into high school- and college-age student-athletes to develop the next crop of officials does have risk.
“If they’re younger we don’t always keep them because their jobs may be volatile,” Snapp said. “They may be moving out of state and taking their officiating knowledge with them.”
That’s why Snapp sees another answer that might provide better long-term results.
“One thing for lacrosse — and I believe it would work with any sport — would be to encourage parents to get involved when their kids are young and the games are usually simpler and shorter,” she said. “They often can officiate their own child’s games, and it’s a nice way to do something with their kids other than then schlep them around and stand on the sidelines.
“It’s a great way to learn the sport and there will be a percentage of those folks who will find they really love officiating and will continue on. That’s how I got into soccer officiating, and I really think it’s an untapped resource. Any place where parents are asked to volunteer for a team, if they could volunteer to become an official, that would be huge.”
Update: Adds correct name of Eastern Maine Baseball Umpires Association (EMBUA) and corrects caption information.