Blowing the whistle on referee shortage: How this program aims to help nationwide issue

Schools around the country have partnered with company offering referee classes that can be used as an elective

Stock image. Pixabay (Pexels)

As is the case with many around the country who love high school and youth sports, Kyle Armstrong saw no end in sight to the problem.

The billion-dollar youth and high school sports industry around the country has been plagued by a referee shortage, with overbearing parents and coaches and time demands being examples of why many don’t want to be officials anymore.

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Armstrong said the average age of sports officials used to be in the mid-20s in the 1970s, but now its nearly 57 years old.

“We wanted to help,” he said. “We knew there needed to be an infusion of youth into the industry.”

In order to do that, Armstrong created a company that went straight to the schools themselves, and so far the results have been promising.

Back in 2022, Armstrong and his Indianapolis-based company RefReps created officiating education courses that can be taught in high schools and colleges.

The program has quickly spread, with Armstrong saying the company’s classes are being taught in 41 states and at more than 800 schools and organizations throughout the country. The organization has partnered with 27 state high school athletic associations and the NCAA, among others.

“We built a team of educators, professors, and sports officials across numerous sports and levels,” Armstrong said. “Not only did we build the curriculum with sports officiating in mind, but we had to take into account intricacies of all 50 states and Washington, D.C., We worked to combine tools and materials that would help students earn the skills and credentials needed to become immediately employable.”

One school that has signed up with RefReps and is counting the course as an elective for its curriculum is Bath High School, located outside of Lansing, Michigan. Alex Schrauben, a teacher at the school and part-time referee, instructs the class.

“I try to cover multiple sports throughout the semester class,” he said. “This semester, we will be covering basketball, wrestling, volleyball, football, cross country/track, soccer, baseball and softball. I spend 1-3 weeks on all of the sports. The time is a mix of videos, rule quizzes, mechanics discussions, and on-court demonstration.”

Schrauben said it’s simply about giving kids the basics of officiating, and if they have further interest, he tries to get them officiating jobs in the community at local youth games.

“I feel like if the program can produce a couple officials from each class, then it is an overall success and a helpful step towards solving the official shortage problem,” said Schrauben, who said he was approached by his administration about creating and teaching the course.

Armstrong said more than 19,000 new sports officials have gotten their start with RefReps, but a case can be made the impact has been bigger.

“Many of those individuals pursue multiple sports, so the argument can be made that we’ve helped fill 30,000-40,000-plus positions around the country,” he said.

It’s no secret that youth sports is big business, bigger than even pro and college sports. By 2026, the youth sports market is projected to reach $77.6 billion, according to Research and Markets.

Parents spend hundreds and often even thousands a year to put their kids in sports, and often that produces passion that stretches too far with bad treatment of officials. Since 2018-19, there have been 50,000 individuals that have stopped being an official, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.

It’s commonplace now for there to be only one or two referees at a basketball game, or a baseball or softball game with no umpires at all. Games are often postponed are canceled, and ultimately who suffers in the end are kids and coaches who can’t participate, be with teammates, and learn the life lessons sports are lauded for teaching.

There is still a ways to go for the refereeing shortage around the country to advance beyond crisis mode, but Armstrong just hopes the courses his company created can be a way to help.

“Administrators at the school level appreciate the academic rigor of the program as well as the opportunity for students to learn skills that make them immediately employable, all while helping solve a community need,” he said.

About the Author

Keith is a member of Graham Media Group's Digital Content Team, which produces content for all the company's news websites.

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