The number of officials who staff high school sports in Minnesota has steadily declined in recent years, in some cases leaving barely enough officials to cover games.
The drop comes amid concern that sportsmanship issues are making it harder to retain and recruit people and that some younger officials have less patience for putting in the time needed to advance.
After peaking in 2010-11, the number of registered officials fell each year, with all sports but boys’ lacrosse experiencing declines. The Minnesota State High School League had 8,201 registered officials in the 2014-15 school year, down 7.3 percent from four years ago.
The declines are most significant in soccer (down 14 percent from its peak), baseball (down 11.6 percent) and volleyball (down 9.6 percent). Even football, with the most officials in any sport, is feeling the strain, league officials said.
To counter those trends, the league in March hired veteran official Jason Nickleby to fill a newly created position as coordinator of officials. In May, the league launched an initiative calling on officials and their associations, plus member schools, to actively recruit interested officials.
Registration fees for first- and second-year officials were reduced. Incentives were established to reward officials and member schools that recruited new officials. At least one association of officials has beefed up its mentoring efforts for newer officials.
“We need to do a better job of getting to our high school and college athletes and letting them know there are other avenues for staying involved in sports besides coaching,” Nickleby said.
But enticing new officials is only part of the league’s focus. About 500 new officials become registered each year, said league Associate Director Kevin Merkle, who oversees the officials programs. He blames a sometimes-hostile game environment, chiefly created by critical coaches and parents, for the high turnover rate.
“If we keep an official for two or three years, they generally stay,” Merkle said, adding, “research shows that sportsmanship issues” causes most officials to quit and presents “a major hurdle when recruiting new officials.”
Jim Schrank, an assigner with the Minneapolis Officials Association, has officiated varsity football games since 2004 and said “day-to-day the overall climate in much better” but added “there is a ways to go.”
“Sportsmanship, whether positive of negative, trickles down from the head coach,” Schrank said. “But officials can help or hurt themselves with their own attitude. You get what you give.”
Dan Block, a basketball official who assigns games for the Minneapolis association, said many younger officials lack the patience to gain the necessary experience to move up to varsity games.
“They want it now, they want to work a year or two with freshman or JV games’’ and declare themselves ready for the better time slots and caliber of play of varsity games, he said.
Football, along with soccer and volleyball, maintains “barely enough” officials to cover a full season schedule statewide, Merkle said. He added the population of swimming and diving and track and field officials is aging and numbers of hockey officials in northern Minnesota are lower than desired.
The league estimates that it has about 6,200 individuals working as officials, including about 2,000 who work in more than one sport. Pay can vary widely, from $65 to $70 for a varsity baseball, softball or soccer game to $100 for a pair of basketball games on the same evening.
Merkle said the number of officials ebbs in tandem with the economy, rising when other jobs are not as plentiful and falling when the economy improves and people get back to work.
As of late July, Nickleby counted 210 new registered officials, about 50 more than the same point last year.
With an eye on retention, Nickleby helped connect new officials with mentors so “when you come home after a tough game, you can call a veteran official and get that support and feedback.”
Schrank, 55, said he has long helped to cultivate similar relationships within his organization. But he welcomed a concerted effort by the league.
“Jason will send the information on a new official and I will call each and every one to tell them what’s involved and what’s necessary,” Schrank said. “That state-level coordination has made it easier for new officials to get signed up.”
Nickleby, 33, a registered high school official in three sports and current Division I football and Division II and III basketball official, is creating more opportunities for officials to sharpen their skills in a live game environment.
“We have a lot of really good officials across the state,” Nickleby said. “What I’m trying to do is give every official we have some tools to step it up to that next level.”
In past years, volleyball officials had only one clinic with on-court training. This fall, four such opportunities will be offered. In addition, Nickleby plans for quicker, more effective sharing of information for officials who are interested in improving but must juggle other responsibilities.
Former Eden Prairie football player Ivan Cardona followed Schrank’s advice and switched from coaching to officiating six years ago. Cardona, 31, networked with veteran officials to gain a richer understanding and approves of Nickleby’s plans to promote a higher standard.
“He’s setting a precedent that if you want to officiate in the state tournament, you should be seen at more camps and clinics,” Cardona said. “Officiating is a profession and you want to look professional.”