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Shortage of referees in area athletics

High school athletics are facing an issue that’s been impending for the last several years. Across all sports and schools throughout Section 6, New York state, and really the entire country is facing the problem of not having enough officials to work games.

“We have a huge shortage of all officials all throughout Western New York, as well as in the state and country,” said Section 6 Executive Director Mark DeFilippo. “We have many uncovered sub varsity games happening throughout the section every day.”

There are several reasons as to why high school athletics is facing this problem. For starters, many of the officials who would do games are getting older and have retired without an influx of younger officials wanting to replace them. On top of that, the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in some officials not wanting to work given the circumstances.

“Some of it has to do with COVID-19,” said Al Gens, athletic director at Dunkirk and member of the Section 6 Executive Committee. “Some officials are choosing not to work during the pandemic or have a reduced schedule.”

Gens said that from what he’s seen, the biggest issues right now are in soccer and volleyball. In specific, there’s a shortage of officials for afternoon soccer games, as not every place has lights.

“It depends on how heavy the schedule is versus how many officials are available,” Gens said. “This week I’ve been working on soccer, and there’s been a shortage in the afternoon. Here we have lights and some other schools have lights, so we’ve been facilitating moving games to night. This reduces the number of officials in the afternoon. I’m not sure how winter is going to be and then of course as far as spring.”

For football though, there has been the opposite problem. Now, more and more places have lights for their field, meaning that teams want to play their games on Friday nights. The popularity of the time slot, combined with the official shortage has meant that games are being played on different days.

“From what I understand too, a majority of schools have lights so they want to play at night,” Gens said. “It used to be a lot of Saturday afternoons, it’d be roughly a 60-40 split of Friday and Saturday so it was easier to facilitate. But now it has flipped more to nights. The last couple years, Section 6, because of availability here and in the Buffalo area, you’re seeing where they’ve gone to three or four Thursday night games, then the Friday nights, then the Saturday night games.”

While Gens said that it hasn’t gotten to the point where games are being canceled, it has led to a lot of officials having to double shift and the times or dates of games getting moved. But this double shifting is leading to even more issues with how much those that are officiating actually want to do it.

“Our leagues have to be creative in scheduling so that there are not too many games on a given day,” DeFilippo said. “Our officials are getting older and retiring and no one is replacing them. They are getting burned out because there are so few of them so those individuals are working more games than they want or their bodies can handle. It’s a huge problem.”

As for a solution, there doesn’t seem to be a clear-cut one. DeFilippo said that they’ve tried a multitude of different ideas in order to get a higher turnout but it hasn’t fixed the need.

“We don’t know,” DeFilippo said. “We haven’t found a good way to get people interested in officiating. We have tried waiving dues fees, raising the amount paid to modified and (junior varsity) level refs. We’ve tried advertising, encouraging high school and college athletes. If anyone can find the answer, we would be willing to listen. Unfortunately, as I stated, this is not a Western New York problem, this is a national problem.”

Gens added that the situation has many parts and that finding bandage solutions like they have been has been causing additional problems.

“We’ve been searching for that,” Gens said. “It’s a multi-headed situation. Officials now are aging and some of them are getting out of officiating. The number going out has been greater than those coming in. We’re going to end up with reduced numbers with the same number of games being played.”

Should anyone be interested in becoming an official, Gens said they’re always looking for people to join the officiating ranks. Various contacts to become an official can be found on the Section VI website at https://www.section6.e1b.org/.

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