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Turing a Crisis into a Catastrophe starts at Thursday Night Football

As an industry, we have been talking about ‘reversing the downward trend in the recruitment and retention of sports officials’ for at least the past 11 years.

When the perennial issue of a shortage of sports officials yet again highlighted, COVID isn’t the excuse. While this pandemic may have bought the issue to a head, what could be colloquially known as ‘the great American shortage of sports officials’ has been brewing for many years.

It is no surprise when headlines such as High school football games moved to Thursdays due to shortage of officials start appearing. While this does allow officials to double up on both a Thursday and Friday night, it avoids addressing the root cause; a lack of numbers of officials. That is even before we get to the concern of the ageing demographic of current officials.

Where is the problem?

There is little to no incentive for local officiating Associations to invest in new members. It is more effort to attract, train and develop new officials than it is to redeploy current officials. For those Associations that are willing to do so, they often may not have the time, knowledge, expertise or reach to attract potential new officials at the required rate.

While recruitment campaigns have been created by peak bodies including the National Association of Sports Officials (NASO) and National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) – they appear to be missing the mark. The NFHS campaign reported 19,000 expressions of interest with circa 1,800 becoming registered officials (a moderate conversion rate of around 9%). While the NASO, understandably so, is more vested in the interests of its current membership base than futures.

We tested these platforms out ourselves. After receiving an automatically generated response from the NFHS, no subsequent contact was made by any local body. The first correspondence from the NASO’s platform came after 31 days with the message “we are currently working to match you with an officiating group near you.” Considering the dire lack of officials; for a lead not to progress in a month is indicative of the entire system as a whole.

What is the solution?

This crisis, now turned catastrophe, has not occurred by chance. It is, put simply, due to the the lack of priority placed on officiating (and subsequent funding) by state and national sporting organisations. It is time for these organisations to step up.

While it is pleasing to see elite bodies, such as the NFL, begin to now partner with the NFHS to promote the participation of (playing) football at high school level. This type of support also needs to trickle down to officiating, and quickly.

Investment by sporting organizations needs to come in the form of full time, professional staff; funded sustainably with adequate resources/technology. If now is not time to invest into officiating development, as has successfully been the case in other countries such as the UK and Australia – where the number of officials in those sports who actively support officiating has actually increased – when is?

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