It’s never easy to have a game or season when one of the teams is short players. And for another year, the state of Oregon is heading into a school year where that will be the case for the third team in every game, the officials.
Numbers have dropped significantly across every sport for more than a decade. Last school year had 25% fewer officials than the state had in 2010-11. The OSAA had more than 4,400 officials in 2010-11, compared to 3,268 last season.
This shortage in officials results in cancellations or rescheduling of games, robbing student-athletes of opportunities and putting additional pressure on the schools for travel and other planning.
Neal Reinen, head of the Salem Football Officials Association, said he had to cancel more middle school games last year than in the past 20 seasons combined. Reinen said that some kids only got to play two of the five scheduled games, as he would have to decide geographically what schools would get to play some weeks.
But things appear to be trending in the right direction.
While there is still a long way to go to get back to the numbers from 2010, they’re inching closer to pre-pandemic numbers. All but one sport has had an increase each year since the 2020-21 school year, and they had a 7.5% increase across all sports last season.
“We actually maybe turned the corner, we can say that once we have more data,” Oregon Athletic Officials Association Executive Director Jack Folliard said.
Probably the most significant change that has been made to aid this turnaround has been a pay increase. For varsity football, game pay this coming season has gone up from $73.50 to $90.
In 2025 it will increase again to $100. According to Folliard, every sport has had a pay bump.
“Money is important to officials. I mean, we’re doing it for, as a hobby, it’s still a paid hobby and you take time out from your family and your regular work,” Folliard said. “So hopefully what the schools did for us, which is great, will make a difference.”
There have also been some rule changes put in place to help protect officials from possible harassment and berating. Only the head coach is allowed to address officials and ask for clarification.
“We’ve heard that the head coaches like it because sometimes they want to be the ones that speak to the officials, the only ones they don’t want their assistants to,” Folliard said. “There’s been a real positive reaction from what I’ve heard, particularly with football, with that new rule.”
The process itself has also been streamlined, with the introduction of a new website from the OSAA and OAOA, newofficals.org. Through the site, those interested in becoming officials simply input their information, and it connects them with the local officials association. In the past, prospective candidates would have to track down and contact the proper association directly.
And as more new officials sign up each year, there is of course the concern that some will lose interest after that initial season.
And just like college basketball needs to address the one-and-done-issue, Folliard said it is something that they also have to look at each year. But, Folliard said that they don’t seem to lose too many officials after only one season.
“What I heard anecdotally last year was that we’re doing better in at least having the first year officials have a good experience, so they’re going to come back for their second year. We find actually that the biggest concern is the two and done so to speak,” Folliard said.
If losing officials after a second year is an issue, it will be seen this coming year, two seasons in from the pandemic and the massive drop off in officials.
But either way, it will be a slow process for the OAOA and OSAA to build those numbers significantly.
“We’ve dug a big hole and so it’s going to take years to get back up to where there’s enough officials so that schools don’t have to worry about rescheduling and games don’t get canceled,” Folliard said. “But this is just the start.”