Wisconsin high school sports are in jeopardy amid WIAA ref shortage

“A game without a referee is just practice.”

That’s the message Wisconsin umpire Kevin Scott wanted to convey when he spoke about the state’s growing shortage of officials.

Fueled by increasingly abusive fan behavior and exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the shortage has put referees, sports organizations and teams under pressure as games have been altered or, in some cases, risk being cancelled.

The lack of umpires in Wisconsin high school sports is pervasive. According to the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association, the number of available officials in soccer, volleyball, hockey, basketball and softball has fallen by more than 30%.

That means working umpires like Scott will have to keep driving to fill the void. When the referees come to their games, they face more abuse.

“Hostile, I think, is the right word. People don’t have a filter anymore and they think because they paid to get in the game they’re allowed to yell at you,” Scott said.

While increasing harassment is itself a growing problem, Scott said it feeds into a cycle where the shortage leads to inexperienced referees officiating games that would normally be too advanced for them.

No umpires mean Wisconsin high school sports are in jeopardy

Southeast Wisconsin volleyball game assigner Linda Dahl explained that increasing harassment of officials has reduced the number — and quality — of umpires she can assign.

“Because we don’t have enough umpires and experienced people have resigned, we have to use umpires in situations that they might not be ready for,” Dahl said. “This has caused fans to become even more angry, which has resulted in the number of referees being reduced even further.”

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The groups most affected by the shortage are lower-level junior varsity competitions and tournaments.

“We only have so many people and that forces us to make tough decisions. Normally varsity games are prioritized and I know some lower level games have been canceled or turned into scrimmages,” Dahl said.

With the WIAA currently reporting 7,422 available umpires, down 19% from the 9,164 it ended with last year, athletic directors like Grafton High School’s Kevin Moore have been forced to “get creative” in trying to ensure none Sporting events have to be cancelled.

“An event that gets canceled is obviously the last thing you want, so we worked with opponents to change times and locations to secure a referee,” Moore said.

In some cases, Moore said, his school has chosen to play games at a neutral venue to meet the umpires wherever they are that night.

Another challenge for college sports is that club tournaments are usually a more convenient situation for referees as they only need to travel to one location to officiate a larger number of games. Additionally, youth sports offer the same benefit and are often not accompanied by harassment.

Moore has worked to ensure referees want to come to his school, including emphasizing to fans that abusive behavior at sporting events will not be tolerated.

“I’ve made it very clear to my community that yelling at or taunting a referee isn’t the right way to behave at a sporting event… It just won’t be tolerated,” Moore said.

The WIAA is also working to prevent this type of behavior by implementing a new kicking policy that states that a fan who gets kicked out will also be banned from attending the next game for that particular team.

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Dahl agreed that being more respectful of officials at local sporting events would be a big step towards alleviating the situation.

“The bottom line is that every officer is a human being. Respect and human decency is just lost somewhere… What we’re doing isn’t easy and it’s essential to sport across the country,” said Dahl.

A WIAA officer has the opportunity to attend at least one two- to three-hour training session covering subjects on the field and in the classroom — although this training is not technically required. Pay is around $100 a night, with a night typically consisting of a varsity game and a JV game. Longer commitments like tournaments can pay out as much as $280 per day depending on workload.

Current referees are charged and abused

Jim Hochevar, 75, considered leaving office but chose to stay on to play a role in continuing high school sports.

“I only keep doing this because I love sport and I love the community. I just want to do what I can to help,” Hochevar said.

With a growing desire to spend time with his grandchildren and after overcoming a knee infection that sidelined him for much of last year, it seemed Hochevar was at the end of his time as a civil servant; However, given the circumstances, he felt compelled to move on.

Brian Marx, president of the Wisconsin High School Volleyball Officials Association, said that due to the current situation, he is booked up for sporting events three to four months in advance and often works late into the weekend.

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In response to the officials’ strain, Marx’s organization has begun recruitment campaigns, hoping to reach a familiar audience: college students.

“I always tell people this is a great college job. You don’t work long hours, you’re paid relatively well and you’re in sports… So we’re working on signing some younger referees,” Marx said.

WIAA follows suit with extensive public awareness campaigns, lenient enrollment deadlines, and by working with high schools across the state to create an elective officer class for students to attend to learn the basics of the profession.

When asked how hopeful she was that the situation would be alleviated soon, WIAA’s Kate Peterson Abiad was blunt.

“I am… It will take a lot of work from everyone to help us raise a new generation of officials,” Abiad said. She made it clear that her worries wouldn’t stop her from working to make things better.

Hochevar worries that the current shortage foreshadows a larger problem for the Wisconsin high school sports community: “If we keep shutting out people, we’re not going to have a next generation of umpires who can sanction these games… What happens then?”

Beck Andrew Salgado can be reached at 512-568-4070 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @Beck_Salgado.

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