It’s no secret what the most important challenges facing the high school sports officiating ranks around Maine and the nation are — recruitment and retention.
Jeff Benson of Auburn hopes to combat those challenges as the state’s first commissioner of officials.
“The biggest issues we have right now are trying to retain the people that are on those boards and also how do we increase the membership in officiating, because it’s obvious it’s not something people are getting into for various reasons,” Benson said.
Benson, a longtime high school and collegiate sports official and former school administrator, was named to the newly created commissioner of officials post Wednesday by the Maine Principals’ Association.
“We are extremely fortunate to have someone with Jeff’s experiences, both as a highly respected school administrator and as an outstanding multisport official,” said Mike Burnham, executive director of the MPA’s interscholastic division. “I look forward to working with him as we grow and develop the role of the commissioner of officials.”
The MPA, in cooperation with its Officials Advisory Committee, is transitioning from its former commissioner of basketball post — which dealt with officiating only in that sport — to a more all-encompassing position designed to help provide consistency among all of the state’s officiating groups.
The Officials Advisory Committee was formed a few years ago to address the common issues faced by officiating groups for all 14 MPA-sponsored sports that employ game officials.
“[The MPA] saw the need to get all of those officials groups into meetings so they could discuss issues and help each other out, and that’s been a good thing,” Benson said of the Officials Advisory Committee’s origin.
The change to a commissioner of officials coincided with Peter Webb’s recent retirement as commissioner of basketball this summer after 27 years. Webb remained hospitalized in Portland on Wednesday morning after suffering a brain aneurysm July 5 at his Stetson home.
Benson has been a member of the Officials Advisory Committee, which includes representatives from the various high school sports official boards across the state. In his new capacity Benson will chair that panel and serve as a liaison between the MPA and those groups.
“There’s no sport that’s immune,” Benson said of the attrition within the state’s officiating ranks. “I just know the two groups I belong to, the Western Maine Board of Officials [basketball] and the South-Central Maine Board of Umpires [baseball], have lost a pretty good amount of guys in the last five to 10 years.
“How do we help those boards solve those problems? It’s a daunting task that we are facing, no question,” he said.
Benson retired in 2018 after nearly 40 years in education, with 28 years spent as an athletic administrator including two stints at Edward Little High School in Auburn and additional stops at Lisbon, Gray-New Gloucester and Oxford Hills of South Paris.
Benson also has served for 15 years as a soccer official, 32 years as a basketball official and 29 years as a baseball umpire, and over the years he has worked numerous regional and state championship contests.
He has been an assistant baseball coach at Bates College in Lewiston for the past eight years.
Benson has been recognized with numerous state and national awards during his career.
He received the Maine Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association Special Achievement Award in 2003, the Collegiate Baseball Umpires Association’s Maine Al Card Sportsmanship Award in 2003 and the Central Maine Board of Approved Baseball Umpires Jim Taylor Award in 2004. He also garnered the MIAAA Robert Lahey Maine Athletic Administrator of the Year award in 2007, the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference Athletic Administrator of the Year award in 2008, a National Federation of State High School Associations Citation Award in 2008 and the National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association’s Distinguished Service Award in 2014.