Over the past three to four years, many news outlets across the country have reported a shortage of high school sports referees.

Last winter, during the Polar Vortex and extreme weather that followed, which cancelled many games, Rochester Area Officials Association Football and Basketball Varsity Assignor Jared Butson was forced to scramble and move less experienced referees into varsity action.

“With so many rescheduled games late in the season I had to put a memo out to all the ADs,” said Butson, who assigns refs to 40 different schools which include Red Wing, Goodhue County and a majority of Southeastern Minnesota. “‘Before you reschedule, look to see if refs are available first.’”

Area schools were forced to get creative with rescheduling their respective basketball games. The Red Wing girls’ basketball team played five games in a nine-day span to close out its regular season. The Goodhue girls’ team played four games in seven days and the Randolph boys’ team played five games in eight days.

The packed schedule led to referees being assigned to games “four to five days a week” instead of a more consistent two to three games per week. With so many games in so few days, Butson said there were days referees weren’t available for Freshman, B-squad and sometimes Junior Varsity games. In most cases, a referee crew was sent to work both the JV and varsity games.

The situation highlighted the shortage of referees Butson said Minnesota has as well as across the country.

For the upcoming football season, Butson said it is tougher to have a full crew at some games due to all of the games being played on one day.

“Even if a fourth of the schools play on Thursday, it would still be hard because then you’d be pulling refs away from volleyball or soccer,” Butson said.

Putting the focus on the athletes

A study often cited, done by the National Association of Sports Officials, says 80 percent of all high school referees do not return for a third year.

Butson said he’s seen referees often join for just two years, but estimates the average tenure of referee with the RAOA is 15 years.

It doesn’t take much of a search to find examples of poor “fan behavior” in any state with videos or written pieces summarizing the incidents. These incidents have led to referees quitting which Butson says is driving up the average age of the referees employed.

“We’ve seen a lot of people try their hand at reffing when their kids are out of the house,” Butson said. “We have experienced people retiring after 20, 25, 30 years and newer refs joining in their 40s. The big fear is the overall age of the refs is going up.

“We need to do a better job of retention. If we can get a ref to start in Year 3, we have a better chance of keeping them.”

The MSHSL has promoted referees through a #ThankARef social media campaign since 2015.

This week the MSHSL and various ADs have shared a video which features several high school athletes talking about why they play and how much fun it is to compete.

When asked about the video Butson said he likes the angle and added fans need to “keep it positive.”

“Are refs going to miss calls? Absolutely,” Buston said. “If I ever call a perfect game, it’s never happened so I better retire.”

Butson, who also works as a teacher at St. Charles high school and referee for basketball, said he believes the negative “fan behavior” often times gets blown out of proportion. He added that a high school event is one of the cheapest events a person can go to and have the ability to yell at a ref. For the ref, there’s more behind the scenes that fans don’t see in the moment.

“There have been days where I left St. Charles at 4:30 and didn’t return until 10:30,” Butson said. “I couldn’t tuck my kids in to sleep. I’m seeing my wife for the first time since sometimes 6:30 a.m. I think, in the moment, society doesn’t understand or they ignore (our sacrifices).”

While Butson said he’s seen videos of the fans who yell at refs, he hasn’t had or seen many instances.

“Regardless of big or small school in Southeastern Minnesota, we have some great fans,” Butson said.

Still generating interest

Buston said before last school year the RAOA had four new refs join, while two years ago the RAOA had 12 new referees.

Butson said he’s seen some younger people join in recent years.

“For college kids home for the summer, it’s a great way to make some money,” Butson said. “Often they still have a connection with a sport. If they want to ref, (the various varsity assignors across the state) have connections to make it possible for them to continue after college.”

Like the athletes are taught that a sport is an extension of the classroom, so to are new referees taught that a game is a learning experience.

The “constant push” for the education side is what Butson believes will benefit refs, players. In the next week, Butson will schedule the mentor meeting for his new refs and veteran refs. He’s seen many veteran refs enjoy the mentoring process and said there enough new people joining that the shortage of refs statewide isn’t as big of an issue for the RAOA.

“We’re not in dire straights,” Butson said, “but when we have situations like we did last winter, that’s when you see the effects.”