Where have all the officials gone?

There has been a decline in sports officials nationwide

If you’ve been thinking lately that it’s a tough time for officials in a number of sports including fastpitch softball, you’d be right. As this infographic from Ohio University demonstrates, the number of officials nationwide is on a steady decline.

That’s bad news for everyone involved in youth sports, because even though you may not always like their calls, and in some cases may think they are biased/blind/complete idiots, umpires and referees are still essential for competitive sports. You could play without them, I suppose, but if you’re counting on all the coaches and players to be completely honest about close calls you’re bound to be sorely disappointed.

Where are they all going? Well, like the rest of the workforce, older officials are retiring. Unfortunately, not enough people are stepping up to replace them. It seems that players who are either finishing or have finished their playing careers aren’t exactly stepping up to stay involved in softball by becoming umpires. Although there are some exceptions.

The opportunities to advance from high school to college officiating aren’t exactly abundant either, which may discourage some. The pay isn’t exactly great, the hours can be long and inconvenient, and so forth.

Then there is the issue of the hostile environment these days. More and more, youth sports contests are beginning to sound like political debates on Facebook. This has led more than 85% of current officials to “consider terminating their services if (the) environment worsens.”

What’s the consequence? According to the infographic, potentially it could mean fewer games, fewer opportunities at the lower levels in high school, and perhaps some sports being dropped altogether at some schools.

While the infographic doesn’t get into travel/club ball, fewer officials could mean even shorter games in an effort to cover the same number of games, or perhaps bringing in unqualified or untrained volunteers to pick up the slack. Yes, I know there are some bad umpires out there even with training, but the situation could get a whole lot worse.

So what’s the solution? I can think of a couple of things.

One is to be sure coaches, parents, and players treat officials with respect rather than imitating the bad behavior they see on TV. That not only gives current officials a reason to stay in it; it also encourages current players to stay in the game by officiating when their careers are done.

As part of that, coaches and players should shake the officials’ hands after every game – even if you think they blew a call that cost you the game. Just that act alone can mean a lot.

Stiffer penalties for those who verbally or especially physically abuse or threaten officials should be put in place and enforced vigorously. No official should ever have to wonder if he/she will be confronted by an angry coach or parent after a game.

Officiating organizations should also make an effort to reach out to high school and college players (and their parents, for that matter), encouraging them to sign up when they’re done playing. Sometimes all it takes is asking someone. They should do more than send an email. They should actually show up in person and present, in my opinion.

Those are just a few ideas I had. What about you? What do you think we can do to turn the tide and swell the ranks of quality officials?


About Ken Krause

Ken Krause has been coaching girls fastpitch softball for nearly 20 years. Some may know him as a contributing columnist to Softball Magazine, where he writes Krause's Korner -- a regular column sponsored by Louisville Slugger. Ken is also the Administrator of the Discuss Fastpitch Forum, the most popular fastpitch discussion forum on the Internet. He is currently a Three Star Master Coach with the National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA), and is certified by both the Amateur Softball Association (ASA) and American Sports Education Program (ASEP). Ken is a private instructor specializing in pitchers, hitters, and catchers. He teaches at North Shore Baseball Academy in Libertyville, IL and Pro-Player Consultants in McHenry, IL.

Posted on November 7, 2017, in Rules and Umpires, Sportsmanship and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. The pay definitely needs to be increased. It is supply and demand 101. This will only get more people involved, but not necessarily stay involved. It is hard to build numbers if the numbers increase. I think you hit I right on the head about the behavior of all involved. I’ve officiated football for 20 years, levels ranging from 3rd grade through NJCAA. The behavior in the past 10 years has become significantly worse and there is no accountability on the parts of the coaches, players, parents, fans or the school administrators.

    High school ADs used to be grateful when we would show up to work a game. They would provide some basic hospitality and follow up after games. Now they see officials as a necessary evil and won’t even extend the basic requirements such as a bottle of water or a warm shower. In their eyes we should be “honored” to work for them.

    The state association in Iowa does nothing to help officials either. They are in the business of making coaches happy and padding their own pockets. Even when the coaches are wrong, it’s he officials who get put down.

    The crew I work with has worked playoff games in 18 out of 20 years, including finals and many semifinals games, but we chose to “retire” this year do to the many issues listed above and more. It really is a shame because we are not the only ones who hanging it up. At 37, I would have loved to continue to work a game I love—but not under these circumstances.


  2. So sorry to hear that. Sounds like officials are being treated as a necessary evil rather than a part of the overall team, there to keep the game moving and keep it fair.

    I think part of the problem is the behavior people see on TV. They watch the “professional” coaches throw hissy fits and think that’s the way they should handle things. In the end, everyone loses out.

    Thanks for all you’ve done for the sport. Perhaps one day we as a culture will become a bit kinder again and you’ll be more inclined to return.


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