Declining numbers in high school game officials — including a 17 percent drop from the 2014-15 to the 2015-16 school years — have prompted the state’s high school athletic association to take a proactive stand in retaining and recruiting personnel.
TSSAA Executive Director Bernard Childress said the drop has forced his staff to address the decline through the creation of a task force and advertising the need for officials through radio commercials.
There were 5,984 registered officials with the TSSAA in the 2014-15 school year. That number dropped to 4,958 in 2015-16. This school year there are 2,923 registered officials, a drop of 3.8 percent from this time last year. However, winter and spring officials don’t need to register until it gets closer to the season.
There are 13 football officiating associations in the state, including four that service Middle Tennessee programs. Three in Middle Tennessee have experienced a consistent decline in officials.
The TSSAA has 3 percent fewer football officials than at this time last year and 4 percent fewer than two years ago. While some associations have seen increases, others haven’t grown with the state’s population.
“When I took over (in 1994), we serviced 24 high schools and had about 100 officials,” said Kenny Pack, the supervisor and assigning officer for Central Tennessee, one of 13 the associations. “Now, we service 37 high schools and have about 100 bodies.
“We can’t service all of the games. We’re going to have to start playing games on Thursday or Saturday or something. It’s going to come to a point where we can’t serve all of them.”
Portland played at White House-Heritage on Thursday after the North Middle Association, which is based in Clarksville, asked its schools if they could move a game.
“We’ve certainly seen our numbers decrease, but they haven’t dwindled rapidly,” said Ronnie Fuqua, a TSSAA officiating supervisor who works with the North Middle Tennessee Association. “I’ve been doing this for over 25 years, and when I first started, we had about 80 guys in our association.
“We may have about 60 now. But a big issue in our area is they keep building high schools, and that’s stretched crews out and has created travel issues at times as well as making sure each week we have enough refs in a crew to work all the games.”
Fuqua said the military impact of Fort Campbell affects the fluctuating number of officials.
Reasons for numbers decline
There’s a number of reasons why officials are getting out, including jobs, health and age, said Gene Menees, the TSSAA assistant executive director and coordinator of officials.
Also, the TSSAA instituted mandatory background checks late last year, and this is the first season that has applied to fall and winter sports officials.
Menees said that the background checks have not made a significant impact as 8-10 individuals that have applied to officiate this school year have failed to pass background checks. Childress said about six of those flagged are appealing.
Childress said that abuse from fans and coaches also has played a big part in the decline.
Payouts have recently increased for officials, to $100 for varsity football games and to $95 for a basketball doubleheader, but that hasn’t been enough to halt the decline.
Unlike the other three Midstate officiating associations, Middle Tennessee has more than enough officials.
“My staff is at exactly the number that it needs to be, plus I’ve got 25 guys that want to join that we kind of put off for the next year,” said Tom Ritter, Middle Tennessee supervisor and assigning officer. “I’m helping out every other organization in Middle Tennessee.”
Less travel is one reason why Ritter believes his association, which is based in Nashville, has grown. Other associations have more distance between schools they service.
Other sports shortages
Childress said soccer is the most critical sport as there were areas of the state that were lacking in officials before the decline hit. Soccer officials are down 13 percent from a year ago.
Basketball also has been affected. It’s down 8 percent from 2014-15 school year to 2015-16.
“It’s probably worse (in basketball),” said Ken Melton, who serves as a North Central Basketball Officials Association supervisor. “Over the last five years, I’m down 25 percent in basketball. I’ve had to cut way back on (the number of) middle schools (the association serves) in order to make sure I have a good number to pick from on the high school nights.
“Basketball is different, because they play every night of the week. In basketball, (the fans) are right there on you. In football, you can hardly hear them. In basketball, you hear them, and basketball fans have gotten really belligerent.”
On the recruiting trail
Earlier this year, the TSSAA formed an officials recruitment committee.
“Our goal was to try to increase the officiating pool by 300 across the state,” said Hillwood principal Steve Chauncy, who is the committee chairman. “There’s a plan that has been sent out to all the schools that they submit the name of a potential official in each sport that the school offers. If you have 300-400 schools doing that across the state, then you get a pretty good pool of names, and those names would be funneled to area supervisors for officials.”
Additionally, the TSSAA has stepped up its advertising with statewide radio spots. However, Childress indicated that it’s too early to gauge its effectiveness.
WANT TO REF?
Here’s the five-step process to become a TSSAA sports official:
1. Register at tssaa.org
2. Take an open-book test
3. Declare which sport and area association to join
4. Attend rules meetings
5. Attend games
The number of referees have been declining in the state, which has forced the TSSAA to create a task force to retain and gain more officials. Here are the number of officials in each sport over the past three years: Note: Individuals who officiate multiple sports may be counted multiple times in total numbers.