Across the country, a shortage of referees for high school sporting events has become a major issue.
Western Montana isn’t immune.
As another high school football season approaches, the Montana Officials Association is facing uncertainty about its ability to fully staff every game. As a result, MOA is launching a major recruiting effort.
"We're kind of on the tipping point a little bit,” said Gordy Pace, MOA's recruiting coordinator. “There are some Fridays where we basically have every available body out doing a game. There's been occasional times where we've had to ask schools to reschedule for a Saturday just so we could cover it. We don't want to get to the point where schools can't be playing because we can't cover the games for them."
Currently, the MOA's Missoula pool has roughly 55 to 65 officials working approximately 50 games a week during the fall. The levels vary from varsity and sub-varsity to Missoula Youth Football. Games are played in a large territory ringed by Polson, Seeley Lake, Drummond, Hamilton and the Idaho state line.
In years past, Pace has traveled to help other pools — such as Kalispell or Columbia Falls — when there are shortages in those regions. But he says Missoula can’t depend on other pools to pick up the slack, or vice versa. There just isn’t the manpower anymore.
“I’m heading into my 10th year in the pool and in those 10 years, I’ve seen overall numbers drop about 20 to 25 percent,” Pace said.
Where are the officials?
Officials are leaving the profession all over the country, regardless of sport.
In Colorado last school year, 1,400 officials didn’t return from the previous year. Other figures from around the country either parallel that figure or are worse.
The three-year retention rate in the Missoula pool is approximately 25 percent. That’s just above the national average of 20 percent, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.
Officials are leaving the profession for many reasons.
One of the biggest storylines across the country is verbal abuse from fans. But that isn't the issue in the Missoula pool, said Chris Anderson, a 26-year veteran official in Missoula.
"There's plenty of discussion about sportsmanship and ‘Why would people do this when they go out there and get yelled and screamed at?’ and whatnot,” Anderson said. “But I can't really say in our area that's an issue like it is in bigger cities. I can't really think of anyone who's quit because they got yelled at or screamed at.”
Age and retention are Missoula's issues, Pace said.
Many of Missoula's younger new officials are college students. After three years or so they graduate, get jobs elsewhere and move.
Another issue, Anderson said, is that high school teachers and staff aren’t as involved in officiating as they were in years past.
“We’re losing folks every year in part just because they’re reaching the age where they’re retiring,” Pace said. “We recruit a few people every year, but retention has not been what we need it to be. We definitely have an aging pool and we look at the next five years or so and a big chunk of our senior, master level folks will probably be retiring from it. We're definitely making a concerted effort right now to address that."
Because of the shortage nationwide, the National Federation of State High School Associations has launched a recruiting campaign. The MOA is following suit.
The drive behind it all
Damian Droessler of Missoula is a third-year official in the local pool. After coaching for several years at various levels, Droessler took a job at Hellgate Elementary as the middle school vice principal and decided to quit coaching.
But he wasn’t going to give up all aspects of sports.
“It was an opportunity to stay active in the sport — basketball and football for that matter — and give back to the kids so they have the same opportunities that I had when I was growing up,” Droessler said. “When I got out of coaching, I knew that they needed officials too and they were always a great group as a coach to work with. It was a good opportunity to go and be on the other side."
Droessler knows that without him and other officials, the landscape of high school sports would be vastly different than when he was a kid.
"My favorite part of officiating is giving back to the kids and trying to create an experience for them or be part of an experience that's rewarding,” he said. “Without officials, that experience could go away, and we don't want that to go away by any means.”
Anderson started officiating during his freshman year of college. He signed up as a way to stay involved with sports, but now it’s become a major part of his life.
“I enjoy being a part of the game,” he said. “Without us, high school athletics would be hurting. I like to keep that end of it going, mainly just to give back and stay a part of the game. I really enjoy that aspect of it."
Pace is entering his 10th year after seeing a brief in the Missoulian about the need for officials. He came to the meeting to see what it was about. Nine years later, he's officiated his first state championship game.
“For me, I've found it was one of the best professional development things I’ve ever done in terms of leadership development,” Pace said. “Friendships are a big part of it, too.”
How to become an official
The Missoula pool of the Montana Officials Association is desperately seeking new football referees for the upcoming season. Part of the recruiting effort includes an introductory meeting from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 9, at the St. Patrick Hospital Conference Center.
"This isn't just for men,” Pace said. “There are obviously women who have done very well at the college level and … are breaking into the NFL. I didn't start officiating until I was in my mid-40s. I thought I was maybe too old to do it. I showed up and I saw there were a lot of guys who were my age and maybe a little older who were just getting started."
Referees are needed to work all levels of high school football as well as middle school and youth games, he added.
To those on the fence about being an official, Droessler said: “Come give it a shot. I think you’ll enjoy it a lot more than you realize. It’s a great opportunity to give back to the youth that you can’t get in all other capacities. When you gotta travel two hours to go ref a game on a Saturday in a snow storm, you're doing it because those kids deserve a chance to play. They deserve a shot at that experience."