Traverse City News and Events

Flag On The Play: Referee Shortages Threaten Youth And School Sports In Northern Michigan

By Craig Manning | March 28, 2023

From youth sporting leagues to school athletics, northern Michigan has no shortage of opportunities for kids and teens to get in the game. But those opportunities could be in jeopardy: Sporting organizers say it’s getting harder and harder to find referees to officiate games. The crisis could lead to fewer play opportunities locally, disrupted sports schedules, more travel demands for local teams, and trouble ahead as northern Michigan looks to invest in new sporting venue infrastructure.

Northern Michigan’s Kevin Avery has been a soccer referee for more than 20 years. He’s officiated state finals for the Michigan High School Athletics Association (MHSAA), serves as a northern Michigan regional referee for the United States Soccer Federation (USSF), and is district director of referee development for the Michigan Referee Committee (MRC). He's also a registered assigner for the MHSAA, which means that he’s often responsible for assigning referees for local sporting contests – work he says is becoming more difficult every year.

“In all of Northern Michigan – from Leelanau to Alpena and from Cadillac to Harbor Springs – there are fewer than 60 soccer referees who have been officiating for more than three years,” Avery says. “And most of those 60 refs have been supporting the game up north – whether as MHSAA officials or as USSF certified referees – for a very long time. Almost 70 percent of experienced soccer referees in our region are 55 or older.”

While Avery salutes the refs who have stuck with the game for years, he says most of those officials admit “they won’t be able to ref forever.” The problem is that northern Michigan doesn’t have a base of experienced younger referees to take their place.

“On the soccer club side, about 60 percent of all the referees in the state are actually teenagers,” Avery notes. “That’s mostly high school kids who want to make a little extra money. But they mostly work the really young age levels [of youth sports], and then when they go off to college, almost nobody sticks with it. As a result, the number of referees in their 20s, 30s, and early 40s is very low. When you get into late 40s, the numbers start picking up again. There’s actually a bigger population of refs who are in their 50s and 60s than there are referees who are in their 20s and 30s.”

It’s not just soccer that’s seeing lopsided demographic breakdowns. Just ask Barb Beckett, who serves as a referee assigner for the Northern Sports Officials Association (NSOA). NSOA schedules sporting officials for “about 185 area schools” across five sports: basketball, football, softball, baseball, and volleyball. For all five, Beckett says there are varying levels of difficulty in finding enough refs to meet demand, with the situation particularly dire in baseball, softball, and football.

“We’re very creative, so that the kids, the schools, and the parents never know that there was a problem,” she says. As the years go on, though, Beckett tells The Ticker it’s getting harder for assigners to dodge situations where games need to be disrupted, cancelled, or rescheduled due to a lack of officiating capacity.

“We've hit that point in the state of Michigan with baseball and softball already, where we need to have schools move games,” Beckett notes. “Or they may only have one official for a game, or the game may have to be cancelled over lack of officials. I don't know the exact numbers, but there were many, many games in the state of Michigan in baseball and softball that were cancelled last year due to no officials.”

Bottom line? As Michigan’s referee base ages and dwindles in size, kids are going to lose out by not having as many opportunities to play. The opportunities that do exist, meanwhile, might not look the way they traditionally have.

“We've already had to make some drastic changes in traditional Friday night football,” Beckett notes. “With every team playing their games on Friday night, we do not have enough referee crews to power though. We've had to be fairly fluid, and some schools have had to move their varsity games to Thursdays or Saturdays to be able to get officials.”

Avery also thinks the shortage could throw a wrench in plans to bring more sporting venue infrastructure to the region. From major investments recently made to improve the Keystone Soccer Complex – home of Traverse Bay Area Youth Soccer (TBAYS) – to an ambitious public-private partnership that could bring new indoor sporting complexes to two local high schools, northern Michigan is ready to bet big on sports. Avery fears a lack of local refs could “threaten the viability and long-term returns” of those investments.

Both Avery and Beckett do their part to help solve the problem. Avery works with the MRC and USSF to organize local grassroots referee training courses, the most recent of which took place at West Middle School earlier this month. Beckett, meanwhile, says the NSOA works constantly to bring new people into the officiating fold – and has found some success recently by targeting “sports empty-nesters,” or parents of recently-graduated high school athletes. When talking about refereeing, the two also try to shine a light on what’s rewarding about the job – from being a part of the electric, competitive atmosphere of sporting events, to getting a better-than-front-row seat to the development of up-north athletic talent.

At the end of the day, though, Beckett says it’s not enough. In her mind, bringing more people into the fold requires nothing less than a change in sporting culture.

“We’ve found that, based on what that younger demographic witnesses as far as sportsmanship at games, it really deters them from sticking with [refereeing],” Beckett says. “They don’t want to, for any amount of money, go in and take that kind of abuse. And the schools are really trying to create change [to how people behave toward refs]. But even when the good outweighs the bad, it seems like the only thing that makes it to YouTube is a big fight, or coaches throwing things, or officials getting assaulted. Those are the things that future prospective officials see, and they don’t want any part of that.”

In other words, Beckett says, it’s up to everyone to save youth sports.

“Just remember: Without refs, it’s a scrimmage."


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