Like them or hate them, referees are essential to the sporting world.
Soccer is among the upper echelon of amateur sports in central New York, in terms of popularity, as thousands of kids take the field each season, whether it’s for youth clubs or school teams. Add in the fact the Soccer Hall of Fame resided in Oneonta for nearly two decades, and there is clearly strong support for the culture of the sport around these parts.
But while the passion is still prevalent among the players and coaches, referees are proving to be harder and harder to find.
Geoff Davis, a soccer referee for more than 30 years and a member of both the Delaware-Otsego Referee Board and the Oneonta-United States Soccer Federation Soccer Referee Association, is seeing the struggles of trying to acquire and retain people willing to ref. For the past 15 seasons, he has been the president of the Oneonta-USSF association, which serves seven local youth soccer teams.
“It’s been getting worse over the last few years,” Davis said. “It’s become more difficult to recruit more refs.”
From 2018 to 2019, 25% of referees did not return, according to Davis.
“They didn’t come back for legitimate decisions,” Davis said. “Injuries, health issues, job changed. It happened to hit us hard this offseason.”
The Delaware-Otsego Referee Board handles 27 nearby high schools and it’s facing a similar problem.
John Cook has been the high school soccer assigner for the board for nine years, and he’s also witnessed a significant decrease in numbers over the past couple of years.
“We’re down almost a good 15 officials, it’s the lowest numbers we’ve ever had,” Cook said. “I joined the board in 1976.”
According to Cook, there were 70 officials in 2017 before it dropped to 63 in 2018 and then again to 57 this past fall.
The high school board must fill officials for 800 to 830 games in a given season over a 10-week period.
That’s a heavy work load for a limited number of officials, especially a group that tends to be advanced in age.
Currently there are 86 referees that make up the youth and high school boards. Of those 86, a vast majority are over the age of 50. Because most, if not all, games occur right after school or on weekends, a considerable amount of people aren’t available to work those hours, thus limiting the pool of people who may want to give refereeing a shot.
“That’s a problem with soccer,” Davis said. “One-third of referees we have on board are retired, so they don’t have that time conflict. On the youth travel side, it’s almost the opposite, where almost all of the games are the weekends and people don’t want to give up there weekends.”
Eighty percent of the refs in the youth association are aged 50 or over, while it’s 100% 50-plus for the high school board.
While it’s difficult to attract new people to join, both Davis and Cook know exactly why applicants are hesitant to come aboard.
“The biggest reason that seems to come up every year is fan behavior,” Cook said. “They just don’t want to put up with abuse, verbal abuse. I would say that’s a prevailing problem. That seems to be the biggest reason veteran officials quit, they just don’t want to put up with it. That can come up with athletes, coaches, fans.”
“On the youth soccer side, (leagues) are more strict and tougher on inappropriate behavior, but in high school soccer it’s a problem,” Davis said. “I think it’s still there, it’s an issue.”
Cook has first-hand experience dealing with unprofessional behavior.
“Everyone can take out their camera and record,” Cook said. “A parent followed me out after a game and I knew them and they said ‘I just want to show you you missed a call.’ Technology has really put another element to the game that wasn’t there.”
This issue is not uncommon around the country as referees and officials everywhere are the subject of insults and even physical altercations in some instances. Just a few weeks ago, a youth hockey referee in New Hampshire was attacked by an angry coach in the middle of a game.
The uptick in unruly behavior has caused referee organizations across the country, including the local soccer administrations, to make sure potential refs are prepared for these circumstances during their class training.
“We talk about it,” Davis said. “We want to make sure if someone is involved in the situation we want to make sure they are ready.”
Davis is an instructor for the youth classes, which are typically offered in March but got pushed to May because of the COVID-19 virus, and said eight people have already signed up for this year’s course.
The high school classes are not as popular, averaging three to five people over the last few years, according to Davis. However, changes are being discussed to offer more classes online through Zoom or other platforms in the hope that more people to sign up.
“That’s one change I could see,” Cooks said. “We might be able to work in more online classes, that’s in the working stage.”
Davis said it’s hard to say what this situation will look like in the future. When attempting to sell the perks of refereeing to inquirers, Davis and Cook each highlight physical fitness, extra income and the opportunity to stay involved with the sport as reasons to consider, but the drawback of dealing with immediate unpleasant feedback seems to sway more powerfully than the positives.
If referees keep opting out at the current rate, it’s not a stretch to say the sport will eventually have to make some tough decisions.
“There’s always going to be a need for officials, no matter how things change,” Cook said. “I think we’ll have to modify scheduling availability. I think with us aggressively trying to recruit and support from schools, if we can keep three or four officials each year I think we’ll be okay.”
“Within the next three to five years, there’s a pretty good chance we’re going to lose a chunk of referees and I don’t know if we’re going to be able to replace them,” Davis said. “It doesn’t hurt the referees, it hurts the players.”