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Referee shortage impacting Colorado high school sports schedule

CHSAA has told athletic directors all summer that they don't have enough officials to cover games, especially for Friday night football.

DENVER — A referee shortage in Colorado is forcing some school districts to change their game schedules. 

The Colorado High School Activities Association told 9NEWS they are in a crisis situation. They said they have been telling athletic directors all summer that they wouldn't have enough officials to cover games, especially for Friday night football.

Some school districts already started changing their schedules, including Cherry Creek Schools. Larry Bull, the district athletic director, said they have moved eight games to help out with the shortage. Most of those are football games.

"We got together, looked at our schedules, and said, OK, can we move this game to a Thursday? Can we move it to a Saturday?" Bull said. "We've been doing this with basketball for I think three or four years now, and it just caught up to football." 

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9NEWS spoke with CHSAA Assistant Commissioner Mike Book to find out why the state is seeing a shortage of sporting officials.

(Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for context and clarity.) 

Is the referee shortage a new problem?

Book: We’ve had it for a number of years, and it’s just kind of gotten to the point where we’re kind of in a crisis situation with our officials and number of contests and number of schools that keep opening and that kind of thing, and so we’re really struggling. I would say every sport is impacted substantially.

How is it currently impacting Colorado high school sports?

Book: We’ve been in communication with schools and athletic directors most of the summer, with our assigners, saying that we just don’t have enough people to cover your games. So the short-term answer, unfortunately, is we have to move off those nights that are coveted for football or whatever sport it is, and we’ve got to come up with a different plan in order to cover it.

A lot of them are playing on Thursday nights or Saturday afternoons. We’ve had to ask officials to do doubleheaders. So they’ll do a 4:00 game and turn around and do a 7:30 game, the same night. So that’s another thing that’s influencing the officiating is the burnout rate is really increased with the number of officials that have left. It’s a nationwide problem. 

What are the reasons for the shortage?

Book: I would say first and foremost is the fan sporting behavior. There have been several surveys sent out, and we just got one sent back today from the National Association of Sporting Officials, and that is overwhelmingly the number one reason that people leave or don’t want to get in it -- because of fan behavior.

That is certainly something we’ve known about, we’ve talked about, but we need to really take action and address. And that starts with the schools and game management and understanding that we’re all there for the kids.

I’ve tried to recruit officials, I’ve done it for 15 years, and every time I try to ask somebody if they want to jump in, it’s always, "I don’t want to get yelled at," and that absolutely can’t be the right reason.

So sporting behavior, obviously the pay is a conversation that needs to be addressed, especially with the inflation and everything that we have going, trying to get the burnout rate. And we’re not reloading the pipeline, so to speak. We’re not getting new officials to come out.

What is the solution?

Book: I think we have to make sure in the event there is a bad fan interaction, that it's shut down immediately, and/or ask for that person or persons be escorted out so that the ones who want to be there for the right reasons are there for the right reasons.

We also have to figure out a way to get those younger kids to start officiating. I think getting some curriculums in the school and starting to teach in the high school so they can start doing some youth games, and then when they’re done with high school they can continue with that.

We're also working on several different ideas of how, because officiating is expensive to start, how we can mitigate some of those costs for uniforms and dues and that kind of thing. So we really want to do a lot of things to help officials get started, because if we can get them started and we can get them through their first two to three years, once we have them about three years we have a pretty good chance of keeping them.

To become a new official, that person needs to contact the area director and/or assigner for that area to get started. Often times it is easier to contact myself at mbook@chsaa.org or Monica Tillman at mtillman@chsaa.org and we will connect them with the area director and assigner.

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