Saving Stripes Part 1: The Surging MHSAA Officials Shortage

They are one of the most important parts of any sporting event, but the demand for high school officials across the country and especially here in Michigan is higher than ever.

“Especially with the impact that COVID has had, they are seeing it everywhere. In metro areas both in Grand Rapids, Detroit, Kalamazoo, northern Michigan, Cadillac, Traverse City and certainly in our U.P. areas. We are hurting and it is becoming more and more difficult to fill a full schedule with officials,” said MHSAA Assistant Director and Head of Officials Brent Rice.

After a major dip in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, referee levels did bounce back somewhat. But the overall decreasing numbers are nearing critical.Dsc 5173

In 2009 there were nearly 13,000 registered MHSAA officials. Since then, that total has fallen to just under 8,000.

The number of football officials statewide has decreased overall by 260 since 2018.

On the other hand, hockey numbers increased, with 42 more registered officials in 2021 than 2018. That makes 486 referees for 130 hockey teams.

Hockey took the biggest hit in 2020, with only 279 officials, a decrease of 59 percent from the year prior.

Wrestling now has a total of 397 referees which is 45 more statewide than in 2018.

Basketball lost 22 percent of officials, but saw a 22 percent rebound in 2021 to 3,482 overall. That number is 77 lower than in 2018.

Dsc 1917Most sports gained back much of their pandemic losses from 2020, but baseball, softball and soccer did not make a significant comeback.

Baseball umpires shrunk by 190 since 2018, while softball lost even more at 206. Baseball lost more than 4 percent of its officials in 2019, saw a 23 percent decrease in 2020 and only a 13 percent increase in 2021.

Softball experienced slightly worse numbers, falling 7 percent in 2019, 17 percent in 2020 and gaining back just over 9 percent in 2021.

Soccer saw nearly 60 percent of referees disappear as a result of the pandemic. More than a quarter of all registered soccer officials did not return for the 2021-2022 season.

“I am really concerned. You know, I have young kids. I’m concerned that when they get to high school that they’re not going to be able to play games, that they’re just going to be, as we call them, scrimmages. If you don’t have officials, it’s not a legal game and it becomes scrimmages,” said Northern Sports Officials Association President Bill Parker.

“There have been times where we haven’t been able to schedule games and those kids lose that opportunity. It’s the kids that really suffer more than anybody,” said Cadillac Athletic Director Fred Bryant.

But why such a big change over the decade? It’s primarily a combination of two factors. The first is the majority of officials are simply aging out.Pkg00 01 40 26still002

“We have officials who are 30 and 40-year veteran officials, and they’re just aging out. At some point, their bodies don’t work the same way that they did when they were younger,” said Rice.

Arguably the most influential factor, however, is the repeated verbal abuse from coaches, parents and fans.

“Their behavior, misconduct, it’s driving folks away. It’s not worth the time and effort that they put in for the amount of grief that they receive and the compensation they receive,” said Rice. “And they’re choosing to walk away.”

“That comes back to the athletic directors. We have to do a better job of making sure that our environment is a good environment for the officials to want to come and be at our facilities,” said Bryant.

But for most officials, the negatives don’t out-weigh the positives. Especially for the Wozniaks, a family of referees from Posen who’ve been wearing the stripes for generations.

Web Capture 21 3 2022 135728“There’s eight in our family, we’re very athletic family and very close knit, very much into community. Sportsmanship is huge. We feel that we keep the game under control. We try to anyway. We’re not going to please everybody by no means,” said Donna (Wozniak) Couture, an MHSAA official of 44 years.

“Some of the nicest returns are when the fans or the players, they’ll say, hey, hey, ref, thanks for doing this. Hey blue, appreciate what you’re doing. It means a lot,” said 45-year MHSAA official Frank Wozniak.

Recruiting is ramping up, with an emphasis on attracting younger referee prospects. MHSAA initiatives like the Legacy Program, which allows high school students to become paid sports officials through mentorship of active referees.

Regardless, it will take a statewide effort from everyone involved.

“The big thing is, other former officials or officials currently is trying to recruit people, that’s our benefit that we’ve seen the past year is actually seeing those involved in the trade trying to recruit people to come out,” said Parker.

“It’s like, do you really want to do it, you want to give back to the community, give back to the kids? I think that was the big thing for us,” said Ken Wozniak, an MHSAA official of 46 years.

Pkg00 03 21 05still004The newest member of the Wozniak family referee crew, Scott Couture, is a perfect example of hope for the future of officiating. The 29-year-old is in his first year as a registered MHSAA official.

“I’ve already been working with an experienced crew and obviously they’re all my family, so I know them well. We want all these kids to be able to show up and not think if the officials are going to show up today,” said Couture. “I’d say to give it a try if you’re thinking about it at all. You’ll never know unless you don’t give it a shot.”

In terms of future recruitment efforts, the MHSAA is organizing a plan to bring together recruiters, local assigners and officials to discuss a new direction for recruitment going forward in April.

It will be the first time a statewide collaboration of this magnitude will take place.

If you are interested in becoming an official the Northern Sports Officials Association offers opportunities to shadow referees at sporting events throughout the year. You can also visit the MHSAA’s officials’ program page to learn more.

Tune in to 9&10 News and MISportsNow later this month for part two of “Saving Stripes” to hear how new officials and programs are hoping to make an impact and help reverse the trend of this shortage.