Without them, there can’t be competition. Not just on the varsity level, at all levels.
Southwest Washington, along with the rest of the country, is still enduring an officials shortage and it’s still threatening the future of organized sport. The problem has been described as “critical.”
Only 52 umpires are certified in baseball or softball in the Lower Columbia region this year. Recruiting new officials and retaining the current base are both issues assignors are facing.
The biggest problem, Lower Columbia Umpires Associated assignor Dave Andrew said, is most prospective recruits have fulltime jobs with schedules that align poorly with the hours an official is typically needed.
“With football and basketball, games are played later in the day and are easier to get to,” Andrew said. “But with baseball and softball, games are played in the afternoon and a lot of people are still at work.”
A sizable chunk of current officials who also work fulltime jobs typically work long shifts with extra days off that allow them to get behind the plate, Andrew said.
As the retirement of longtime officials continues to outpace the new batch coming in, it’s clear officiating isn’t in most people’s plans.
Andrew said heckling hasn’t been cited as a significant retention issue in the local region, but on a national scale, it certainly appears that’s a main cause.
Nearly 50 percent of officials have felt unsafe or feared for their safety because of an administrator, coach, player or spectator according to a survey of more than 17,000 conducted by the National Association of Sports Officials.
Locally, though, it’s the cost of starting that provides a huge impediment, Andrew said. An official can spend up to $400 on uniforms and equipment to get started.
A new official, normally working youth sports and learning the role, makes $30 per baseball, softball or basketball game, with football paying a few dollars more. Varsity officials make $48 for a basketball game and a first-year varsity football referee makes $56 per game.
The Lower Columbia Umpires Association has issued loans to new officials which they can work off as a method of minimizing out-of-pocket expenses and Andrew said they’ve received positive feedback.
That alone, though, doesn’t appear to be enough. The national survey illustrates other problems.
More than 20 percent of female officials have felt uncomfortable, or threatened by other members of their own officiating community. Ten percent of males have felt uncomfortable or threatened by their fellow zebras.
Lower Columbia basketball referee Jessica Warthen said the numbers don’t surprise her at all, and unsatisfactory behavior nearly derailed her path as a referee.
“I quit for one season after one of the other officials was inappropriate,” Warthen said. “There have been other times I’ve thought about quitting (due to having bad games officiating).”
Proactive and cooperative athletic directors in the area have been critical in helping manage the shortage, as they not only try to balance schedules and figure out how to dodge the rain on days where an umpire is available.
Athletic directors, too, try to limit the negative interactions between fans and officials.
“As AD’s we need to just continue to emphasize to our coaches the importance of treating our officials with respect and showing them our appreciation,” Kalama athletic director Brynan Shipley said. “As a coach, I feel like if we model that behavior our players and parents will follow for the most part. We need to set that example, follow it, and not tolerate anything less.”
While basketball and football boast a less than ideal number of officials, baseball remains the most difficult sport for recruiting and retention.
“On busy days, we’ll be talking to associations nearby, like Chehalis, Astoria and Centralia,” Andrew said of trying to get all the local games covered.
With insufficient umpiring numbers and veteran officials turning in their chest protectors every year, Andrew and others said the threat of nonleague games becoming rare is real.
That’s why the Lower Columbia Umpires Association is asking for help, hoping more people give officiating a try. With increased numbers, not only will the shortage be delayed at least, but some believe the quality of officiating will improve as well.