Impact of nationwide referee shortage continues despite improvements for winter sports

It's affecting communities across our area: A shortage of referees. FOX 5 first reported on this during the summer, and checked in with some organizations now that winter sports are underway.

Some organizations say winter sports isn’t as greatly impacted by the shortage since there are typically fewer sports being played and fewer officials are required. 

But, the National Association of Sports Officials says while things have stabilized for now, they still believe it’s a "crisis" mode, estimating a 25 percent shortage of what’s needed across the country.

The key reasons this is happening: Many older officials haven’t returned since the pandemic started, Barry Mano with the NASO says it’s a "graying" industry.  Younger people haven’t filled in the gap at a high enough levels to compensate for retirements.

The final, key point, many officiating organizations say parents have made the job difficult.

FOX 5 spoke with Jeff Sullivan, the head of all things athletics for Montgomery County Public Schools.  He says the current reality is that referee availability is becoming a bigger part of the equation when scheduling games.

"It’s really spread to a lot of our sports now, and it’s something that we have to be cognizant of, certainly with our schedule. How do we schedule games, when do we schedule games, to provide that relief and that flexibility for our officials associations as possible," Sullivan said.

Sullivan added that encouraging sportsmanship across all interscholastic athletics has become a priority, mainly to create a good work environment for officials.

Friday, the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association released a report indicating the current shortage of referees was unsustainable, adding more needed to be done to encourage sportsmanship and create a better work environment for officials.

Sullivan also said given where things stand with the number of referees now, they’re going to have to consider moving games that would normally be after school to later times, or playing football games on Thursdays or Saturdays.

"If we had an unlimited number of officials, we could schedule whatever we want. What’s convenient, but that is one of the things we have to be cognizant of. So we have worked with our commissioners and assigners to look at the big picture," Sullivan said.

The 25 percent shortage is right in line with Rossie Alston Jr. and the Northern Virginia Football Officials Association.

Alston Jr. tells FOX 5 he has about 170 officials right now, can make 200 work, but would like to have 230.

"It’s become a challenge over the last several years, because, as you can imagine our numbers are going down, and there’s a lot of reasons for that, but we’re working on it," Alston Jr. said.

Alston Jr. said the organization is working with schools where it can to fully staff games, but in the last year, they’ve had fewer officials in some crews to make it work.  Some of the conversations with schools includes non-Friday games.  Alston Jr. says some schools are more open to that than others at this point.

"We understand where the schools are coming from as far as their need to satisfy their financial obligations. But the contracts are pretty clear. They say the times and places of these games should be mutually agreed upon between the home school, the visiting school, and the association. So we need to work harder to make sure the schools understand that we’re trying to satisfy our contract the best we can, but they need to work with us and help us to meet our goals and meet their goals," Alston Jr. said.

Alston Jr. said the recruitment efforts are underway to attract new officials, particularly women and younger people.

FOX 5 also checked in with the D.C. State Athletic Association.

In a statement, spokesperson Josh Barr says, "There is still a shortage nationwide, but our games have been covered. Just don't have a surplus of officials that existed previously."