Officials are an essential part of high school athletics.
Unfortunately, their numbers are dwindling across Ohio.
According to the Ohio High School Athletic Association, all six districts saw a drop in Class 1 officials — varsity for all sports — in baseball and softball, and five had lower numbers in basketball from 2011-13 compared to 2013-15.
“I sent an email to the athletic directors saying we would have to get creative,” Muskingum Valley League commissioner Scott Welker said. “We don’t have enough in our district for all the leagues so we will use Class 2 or ask umpires from the Central and Southeast districts to help out.”
The East District has the lowest numbers with 90 softball and 106 baseball umpires and 227 basketball officials. Numbers are especially tight during tournaments since only Class 1 officials can work those games within their districts.
Welker also told league athletic directors finding umpires this spring could be an issue. There is a potential of 20 combined varsity and reserve baseball and softball games in the MVL on weekdays and more on Saturdays due to doubleheaders.
Lower numbers –especially in basketball — are affecting the Mansfield area too, North Central Ohio Officials Association president John Gurney said.
Gurney said no one took the basketball officiating class before the 2012-13 season and only four did this year. Secretary Jerry Czernewski — who teaches the class — had 53 take the course from 2009-11 but only 10 remain active.
“The numbers are close to where they were when I started, but the ages have dropped,” the 67-year-old Czernewski said. “There are young ones coming up, but not many in between them and us.”
Why are numbers low?
Time is among the reasons Welker hears. He has been an official for 22 years policing basketball, baseball and football. He understands why people might be reluctant to commit.
“I officiated 90 basketball games this season. I leave for most of those games around 5 and wouldn’t get home until 10,” he said. “People get busy with their jobs and families so finding extra time can be tough.”
Ron Wintermute, the Licking County Umpires Association secretary, said retirement is another factor but there are other reasons.
“Some get frustrated because they can’t get as many varsity games as they’d like (especially basketball),” he said. “Some start out in their 20s and then start a family.
“Most want to coach their kids. Some don’t like getting yelled at and some just simply move away.”
Gene Bess, secretary for the Muskingum Valley Baseball and Softball Officials Association and a high school official for 25 years, thinks people want to rush through the process despite having to wait two years before becoming eligible to test for a Class 1 designation.
“You have to pay your dues with junior highs, freshman and (reserve), then be seen by someone,” Bess said. “I think guys want to move up so quick and do varsity right away. They don’t want to wait.”
Others don’t feel the money is right. East District officials are paid an average of $50 per varsity baseball and softball game and $60 to 70 for varsity basketball. Pay rates vary by league and district — Ohio Valley Athletic Conference basketball games are $75 — but that money might not offset costs.
“Gas prices and other items really don’t allow you to make much money,” said Gurney, who has worked basketball for 40 years and baseball for seven. “You have to leave work early and some people can’t afford that. It’s why I fill my whole baseball schedule with games in a 15-mile radius.”
Instruction is provided before each high school sports season. Deadlines for applications are posted on the OHSAA website through the Officiating tab or are available by contacting local associations.
Bess — who teaches officiating classes for football, basketball, baseball and softball — said his classes cost $75, including $55 for the license, in the East District. The district will hold officiating classes for anyone interested in May at Ohio University-Zanesville
Costs and sessions vary by districts, but all courses provide a Class 2 qualification if the person scores a 75 percent on the final exam. Class 2 officials can work any varsity sport except football, basketball and first referee position in volleyball.
Officials can apply to upgrade their certification after two seasons and must earn at least an 80 percent on the exam to become Class 1.
Word of mouth is key to recruiting officials. Most districts also rely on media outlets and schools to announce upcoming classes.
Wintermute uses adult education classes for potential officials in the Central District. He also encourages former athletes and coaches pursue officiating as a return to sports.
“We don’t want to discourage people with higher costs,” he said. “If people want to still be a part of sports, this is a good way to do it.”
Czernewski — a long-time official for baseball, basketball and football — thinks athletes entering the workforce out of high school would be good fits to become officials.
“I try to talk to seniors in high school who aren’t going anywhere for school or are staying close to home,” he said. “It’s fun, and you make a little bit of money. They also understand the game so it would be an easy transition.”
The joy of officiating
There is pressure on officials, with each call dissected by coaches and fans. Many don’t want to deal with the scrutiny.
Those situations are difficult for the most seasoned referee. But veterans such as Welker and Wintermute focus on the positives.
“I love the games,” Welker said. “I got into it to make some spending money when I got married and was having kids. The extra spending money is still nice, but I do this now for the exercise and staying in the games.”
Wintermute — who is only working football at this point in his career — started in baseball and has officiated basketball, softball and volleyball.
“I felt it was a necessary and important part of the game,” he said. “There’s a camaraderie among officials, and most of us enjoy working with and helping the younger generation.”
Working critical games is one of many reasons Gurney continues to officiate.
“We travel to Toledo four or five times a year for big games, and I have done about 15 games at the state tournament,” he said. “It’s great to be a part of those games, but most of all I enjoy working with the kids.”
Each official has seen a kid become an athletic success beyond high school. Those special players keep Bess around to see who may be next.
“The biggest thing is watching kids in sixth grade who play AAU, pee wee and little league then seeing them in the junior highs or high school,” he said. “Watching someone like Kevin Martin or Jay Payton grow up and become what they are today is why I still do this.”