The search for more new Iowa high school football referees
All Iowa high school sports have seen a decline in the number of available officials.
The decrease in football officials is “alarming,” but isn’t at a panic level.
If the trend continues, the impact of fewer officials could hit the high school ranks sooner than later. As Iowa’s 2019 prep football season begins, the number of registered officials continues to wane.
From 2007 to 2017, the Iowa High School Athletic Association saw a 12 percent decrease in the total number of officials across seven sports. The pool of registered officials has diminished at the same rate the last six years, going from 1,557 in 2013 to 1,357 this season.
“I really think we still see a little bit of a decline in the last two, three, four years for football, specifically,” said Lewie Curtis, the IHSAA Director of Officials. “That’s 200 fewer than we had in 2013, so when you’re talking about that percentage that is an alarming amount.”
Over the last decade, the number of football officials in Iowa has steadily dropped from more than 1,700 in 2009. Only one season has seen an increase during the last 10 years. From 2014 to 2015, registered officials modestly grew from 1,499 to 1,506.
The IHSAA has attempted to recruit new members with its recent “Add One” campaign. Curtis said the IHSAA has averaged 250 first-time registers annually in all sports over the last eight years.
The struggle lies in keeping officials around after the first few seasons. Curtis said about 300 officials have 20 or more years of experience. Those with six to 20 years jumps to 560, but only 400 have done it five years or less.
Retention is key.
“Half of our population of football officials have fewer than 10 years of experience,” Curtis said. “It shows the critical need of keeping newer officials. We have to find a way for them to come back, so they are becoming the 20- and 30-year veterans.”
The retaining question
Mark Wold has spent almost four decades officiating high school football. He started working at smaller schools like Clarence-Lowden, English Valleys and Belle Plaine. Now, he works Class 4A contests with Mississippi Valley Conference and Mississippi Athletic Conference teams.
He has had to put in his time to climb the ranks. Wold said younger officials may not have the patience to take lower-level assignments.
“They want to work the games with the Cedar Rapids Washingtons and Cedar Rapids Kennedys,” Wold said. “Well, in order to do that, you’ve got to put some time in and I don’t think enough want to do that.”
Pay varies depending on class and whether an official works multiple games at a site. Money has improved, but it isn’t enough to retain them.
“They certainly aren’t doing it for the money,” Wold said. “The pay is a lot better than when I started. It has to be a positive experience and you have to get with the people you enjoy going with every Friday and doing games.”
Mike Bonwell will begin his fifth season as a prep football official. He also works as a basketball referee and baseball umpire.
He said the state needs more performance assessments. Inexperienced officials need more opportunities in the classroom and on the field, learning what and how to improve.
“There isn’t enough training or evaluating,” Bonwell said. “I think it’s a time and manpower issue. The guys need (to be) evaluated. They need feedback.”
Sportsmanship has been attributed to chasing some officials from the sport. Viral videos of confrontations with coaches, players and fans are easy to find.
Football is different from baseball and basketball, however. The fans aren’t as close to the field, limiting interactions.
Wold and Bonwell said they have not faced much trouble with coaches or players over the years.
“The players are a reflection of their coaches,” Wold said. “The coaches do a very good job.
“Overall, I think the players and coaches are fine. We just don’t hear that much from the fans because we’re far enough away since we’re in larger stadiums.”
Bonwell noted as long as officials hustle, know the rules and use the right techniques, coaches won’t say much.
He recalled one minor incident with a fan. His crew was taking over a game that was postponed due to weather on Friday and resumed on Saturday. He witnessed a man run along a fence, constantly yelling at officials.
“When fans get out of control, the AD or team rep has to take over,” Bonwell said. “If they don’t, you know it’s an issue at the school.”
The job can be stressful enough, trying to make the correct calls. Hostile exchanges make it hard for officials, especially younger ones, to continue.
“I definitely hear that,” Curtis said. “They have some negative experiences or even if it’s just (one) negative experience and they throw in the towel. They say this isn’t worth it.”
Curtis said it would be inaccurate to place the blame on sportsmanship or newer officials’ resilience. Numerous factors come into play.
“I’m quite certain you sign up for something like this because you like the sport and you think it will be fun and you can make a little money,” Curtis said.
Iowa isn't alone
Iowa isn’t the only state dealing with falling numbers. Many others have seen numbers drop, resulting in cancellations or rescheduling to different days to accommodate crews.
“We’re certainly aware of the officiating drain and the graying of the current officiating pool,” National Federation of State High School Association’s Director of Sports and Officials Education Theresia D. Wynns said in a GlobalSport Matters article about the referee shortage in Texas, a state rich in prep football tradition. “There are few states that aren’t seeing an impact.”
MVC Commissioner Randy Krejci schedules crews for the conference schools’ home games for varsity only. He wastes little time assigning officials once the IHSAA releases the district assignments every two years.
“I will jump right on that to get every official and crew assigned for everything,” Krejci said. “If I wait, it will be a mess.”
Cedar Rapids Kennedy athletics director Aaron Stecker handles scheduling for junior varsity, sophomore and freshman games. He works with the Cedar Rapids Officials Association and has never had to cancel or postpone a football game for a lack of referees, unlike in other sports.
He has had to settle for a four-person crew, instead of the normal five, at times.
“They’ve done a great job for us,” Stecker said. “I feel we’ve had a decent pool.”
At age 64, Wold is part of a group of officials on the way out with fewer people to step in and fill their shoes. He hopes a solution comes soon.
“I hope I live long enough to see it pick up,” Wold said. “I don’t know what they’ll do.”
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