Over the past few years, local sporting referee numbers have dropped dramatically and it has taken its toll on many states and programs throughout the country.
In Rhode Island, most sports have suffered from plummeting official numbers which has led to undermanned events, inconsistent schedules and a general frustration in the local athletic community.
“This has been an ongoing trend toward the state that it is currently in. It’s not just umpires, it is not just baseball, it’s all sports and it’s at all levels,” said Paul Dion, who is in charge of training incoming officials at Rhode Island Baseball and Softball Officiating. “It begins with a shortage of umpires at the recreational level. When it comes to all sports, we are not bringing in enough officials. It’s a problem, and it has spanned up into collegiate ranks as well.”
Many within the officiating community feel that the issue stems from the sometimes-strained relationship between officials and the parents and coaches. Rhode Island officials make anywhere between 35-70 dollars per game, which is often not enticing enough for these refs to stick around.
“There is a lot of criticism, there is a lot of critique, there is a lot of negativity that comes on these umpires and ultimately they say, ‘To heck with this, I don’t need it.’ The interest in the sport may be high, but the compensation isn’t that high and the compensation is quickly eroded with criticism. I’d say anywhere from 45-60 percent of umpires are stepping away by the end of their second year,” said Dion.
“Lack of respect in parents, coaches and players in that particular order. People are looking at it and thinking, ‘I don’t need to take this grief for this level of pay.’ The compensation isn’t very staggering and people just aren’t willing to deal with it,” added Ray DeAngelis, a local volleyball official who is also heavily involved in scheduling matches. “I trained five new officials in the fall last October and September … of those, I only had one working in (the spring).
The issue of dropping numbers also leads to issues in the quality of the officiating. Considering the number of officials that step away, oftentimes inexperienced refs are called to manage games that are at levels outside of their comfort zone … which also leads to frustration from parents and coaches.
“In order for an umpire to work at the interscholastic level, we are looking for them two have at least two years of extraordinary work at the recreational level, ideally it would be four or five. Then when we bring them up to high school we try to school them, it is usually 6-8 weeks of classroom discussion, rules application. They need that intellectual and classroom training, but they also need that experience level. Many of them don’t get that before they decide to hang up their cleats. Like anything else, it’s about repetition.” said Dion.
Even when officials are available, schedulers have faced difficulty in assigning the proper number of refs to these events.
“In the girls volleyball season, I have 42 teams to schedule. The changes that they make continuously with rescheduling, it (leads) to us having people working matches when they really shouldn’t be doing that high of a level … we just don’t have any choice, there’s not enough people. We also are having more and more matches when we can only send one official when there is supposed to be two officials,” said DeAngelis.
Other issues include already-busy schedules for refs, as well as issues in demographics.
“I work five or six games a week during the girls volleyball season because I can. A lot of these officials have families and work full-time jobs. That in addition to officiating, it can make life complicated for these refs,” said DeAngelis.
“The average age for baseball and softball umpires I’d say is in the late 50’s. People in their late 20’s and early 30’s is what we’re trying to attract. Also, in softball specifically, about 94 percent of umpires are male. We really would like to promote a female sport with female officials,” added Dion.
Local softball and football official Gil Shurtleff enjoys umpiring, and feels that the cause could be helped by word of mouth.
“Honestly, I think that it’s about getting the word out there … how to become an umpire. It took me 2-3 years to finally look up to somebody who could give me a straight answer, who do I call? I’ve been doing it for about five years now and I absolutely love it. I think the word isn’t getting out on how to become an umpire.”
DeAngelis feels that the solution ultimately comes down to patience from parents and coaches, which will help attract new faces as well as retain current ones.
“I’ve been trying to recruit former players because they know the game and they’ve seen how coaches act, how parents act, we’ve all seen the stereotypical Little League father,” said DeAngelis. “Parents need to have a little more tolerance for the officials since these are high school officials for the most part. My board has about 50 officials but only about six of us do college. There’s no tolerance.”