The number of officials willing to call basketball games is declining and has been for some time, according to Fran Martin with the Kansas State High School Activities Association.
In 2011-12, there were 2,121 officials registered. Ten years later, there are 1,465 registered to officiate basketball, a decrease of nearly 30%.
Martin says the shortage of officials is a statewide challenge. “Several years ago, it may have appeared that in the metropolitan areas we had more officials and could cover games, but that is certainly not the case now,” said Martin. “Southeast and southwest Kansas really struggle to fill all the positions, particularly the sub-varsity level.
“In some parts of the state, there are officials, but the quality of officiating isn’t where we would like it to be, mainly due to lack of opportunity to train, and getting pushed into doing high-level games before they are prepared,” said Martin.
Some young officials today are pressed into varsity games without a lot of experience. As a young official in the 1970s, I didn’t have the opportunity to call varsity games until I had a few years of experience. And that was okay. It gave me an opportunity to learn the ropes from veteran officials, and become more battle-tested and prepared.
One problem facing the state today is the reduced number of men and women who want to officiate, thereby forcing many into calling varsity games prematurely.
For now, Martin says the majority of varsity games will get covered with officials, but sub-varsity games are going to struggle. These games are the training ground for teams and for officials.
“Schools need to realize they may not be able to play games on the days they traditionally play and adjust schedules,” said Martin. “The start time of games is also an issue in some sports. Officials can’t get off work to be at a site for a 3:30 p.m. or 4 p.m. start time.
“The lack of training for officials is another concern. Because of the officials shortage, many officials get put into games they are not ready to work, have a bad experience, and then quit. In some cases we have first-year officials with little experience officiating varsity contests,” said Martin.
So why is the pool of officials in decline?
“The reasons that come up the most are the poor working conditions (fan and coach abuse), poor pay, assigner politics (good old boy system of assigning), and people would rather use free time doing something other than officiating,” said Martin.
But there’s more to it than that, according to Martin. “Social media has made it so that every call is scrutinized and criticized. Fans at games use their phone to film contests and put clips they feel are not handled correctly up on social media almost immediately. The comments on some of those posts are very demeaning. Officials don’t feel appreciated and respected by coaches, players, and fans, and therefore they choose not to put themselves on the court/field in this negative environment.”
The worst shortage of officials is in soccer, baseball, softball, wrestling, and volleyball. Martin says there are more registered officials in basketball and football, but there are also more contests on any given night.
“The number of teams playing has continued to increase, but the number of officials has not,” said Martin. “We had a lot of baseball and softball games being played this year with one umpire.”
Martin isn’t without hope, but realizes that changing the landscape won’t happen overnight.
“I believe the camps and clinics we currently offer have helped officials tremendously. Those who have attended have moved up the ranks a little faster, just because of better preparation and observation by assigners and other officials.
“I would love to have more camps and clinics, and require them for advancement, but it is difficult to cover all parts of the state with these; they take a lot of work. We have had some very committed officials and area supervisors that have done a great job teaching. We just need more who want to learn,” said Martin.
If you enjoyed athletics as a kid, let me encourage you to give back to the game while making new friends and earning some spending money. Register as an official on the KSHSAA website.