The Nationwide Decline in Sports Officials

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The number of sports officials is decreasing nationwide. What effect will this have on interscholastic sports in the U.S.?

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The Nationwide Decline in Sports Officials infographic

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America has a vibrant sports industry that relies on the nurturing of young talent at the high school and college levels. Sadly, the number of sports officials has been falling at an alarming rate over the last few years, especially at the high school level. This means young athletes may lack proper officiating, which is necessary to prepare them to play at elite levels including the NBA, NFL, and MLB.

Decline of Sports Officials in High Schools

Currently, the total number of officials who can officiate at high school sports events in the US ranges from 300,000 to 350,000. Out of these, 4,500 registered to operate in Tennessee in 2016. However, Tennessee had 4,700 registered sports officials in 2015, meaning the number of officials in the state dropped by 200 within one year. The same sad state of affairs is replicated in Kansas where 1,887 basketball referees were registered in 2015 compared to 2,027 referees in 2013. The situation is even worse in Nevada where only 812 sports officials are available in 2016 compared to 1,300 in 2015. This translates to a loss of 488 officials in just one year. In Oregon, the total number of registered sports officials has declined by 12% over the last three years. Barring a tectonic shift in these trends, young athletes may have to do with fewer officials for the foreseeable future.

Factors Responsible for Fewer Sports Officials

Several factors have played a role in the decline of sports officials at American schools. Firstly, older sports officials are retiring at a higher rate than the rate of younger officials joining the profession. As such, most states now rely on a disproportionately ageing pool of sports officials. In Kansas, for example, the average age of softball umpires is 60 years. Secondly, school sports officials are generally poorly paid, with a full time official earning an average of $24,870 per year. The average pay per game is even more demoralizing ranging from $35 to $91 depending on the sport and geographical location. This means very few people are willing to take up sports officiating at a time when there are better paying jobs thanks to a booming economy. Moreover, the current low interest rate environment has made it easy for Americans to access business funding from traditional lenders (banks) as well as venture capitalists and angel investors.

In Tennessee, the implementation of a background check policy in 2015 has contributed to the decline in the number of sports officials. Sports officials are required to undergo a background check annually at a cost of between $5 and $35, which they must pay out of their own pockets. Increasingly hostile sports fans have also made it hard for learning institutions to attract new officiating talent. In particular, verbal and physical abuse meted by fans at sports events has been worsening each year. In fact, sports officials have cited poor spectator behavior as the leading reason they abandon sports events. Worryingly, 85.7% of sports officials say they are likely to terminate their officiating services if verbal and physical abuse worsens.

Unlike other professions, it is extremely difficult for a high school sports official to advance to higher levels such as officiating at college sports events. This is because only a few college officiating positions open up annually meaning competition is very stiff. High school applicants also have to compete with more qualified and experienced candidates who may opt for less taxing work schedules after working at elite levels for years. It is also worth noting that young officials may be unwilling to spend an average of 5 to 15 years officiating at the high school level.

How the Shortage of Officials is Affecting High School Athletics

The problems discussed above have had several negative effects on secondary school athletics. To begin with, young athletes across all sports disciplines are participating in fewer games every season. As such, they may fail to develop or gain the experience required to break into elite sports ranks. Another consequence of a diminishing sports officiating pool is shuttering of sub-varsity teams in favor of teams at higher levels. This frees the few officials available to officiate at varsity level games thereby disrupting America’s sports development pipeline at its most crucial stage. At the same time, some high schools are rescheduling games to cope with the dearth of qualified officials. Although this approach works, it means games may have fewer officials than recommended. Furthermore, the available officials may end up being overworked. In some school districts, authorities are dropping some sports disciplines entirely. For instance, high school soccer teams in Florida faced near-extinction due to lack of the relevant officials.

Measures Implemented To Reverse the Decline of High School Sports Officials

In Tennessee, the Secondary School Athletic Association Committee is planning to boost recruitment of officials by working closely with industry insiders and experts because they are more knowledgeable about the needs of young recruits. On its part, the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletics Association has banned spectator chanting “intended to disrespect” officials. This is in addition to publishing guidelines designed to promote a more positive environment at high school sports events and encourage proper sportsmanship. At the same time, the National Association of Sports Officials (NASO) has backed the enactment of legislation in 20 states that defines harsher punishment for fans/spectators that attack sports officials. The NASO also provides insurance coverage to officials assaulted by athletes or fans. The Kansas State High School Activities Association has set aside a $1,000 grant that was used during the first year to develop a video library for training officials. Coaches in Kansas are also encouraged to identify future referees among players.


The number of sports officials who can officiate at high school sports events in the US is declining at an alarming rate. Some of the main factors responsible for this decline include poor remuneration, verbal and physical abuse directed at officials, limited career growth opportunities, and dearth of young recruits. Luckily, sports authorities in several states, including Tennessee, have implemented measures to reverse this trend. These measures include harsher punishment for people who attack officials, promoting sportsmanship during games, and collaborating with industry experts to enhance recruitment efforts.

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