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What do kids know about officiating? Everything.

“Whether or not those managing officiating agree, the message is loud and clear; unless the barriers of entry are mitigated, the sports officiating crisis will continue.”

The National Association of Sports Official (NASO) recently concluded their annual Officiating Summit online this year, with 70 new and past keynote presentations available for viewing. One such keynote from 2019’s Summit was titled “The First Three Years”.

Data out of the US shows that 70% of new officials will leave officiating within the first three years, with it being as high as 70% after the first year in South Carolina. The sentiment holds true across most sports across the globe. In the UK 80% of young football referees walk away in the first two years, while in Australia, 60% of new football officials will leave within three years – a majority of these are after year one.

The ’kids’ keynote (perhaps better named ‘youth’), consisted of a small panel of younger officials; in their final years at high school and first years of college. The session gleamed valuable insight into why officiating, at least in the US, continues to be face both a shortage of new officials and an ageing workforce.


Leah – First-year volleyball official

When asked what was her greatest challenge when starting out; “I just wanted to try it out – to see if I liked it. Instead, it ended up being a lot longer.”

US Volleyball certification consists of hours of online training, online testing and face to face testing before finally getting on the court. “The [certification] process was very long. Obviously you need training, but it was too much. You don’t get a feel for it until you are on the court. It took a long time to get on the court”.

Referee Magazine Executive Editor (and father of Leah), Bill Topp, even admitted “the process was difficult. The thought to complete the training modules was strong. I’m not sure it was the right decision based on how challenging it was. We could have gone down to the local rec or grade-school league.”

Leah, a straight A student and captain of her high school volleyball team, failed the test 3 times. The test was no different to any veteran official having to re-certify. “There is no geared approach for someone starting” says Topp. He asks his daughter if she would have completed the process if she was not his daughter – to which she responses an emphatic ‘no’.

The process was so elongated that she was not even paid in her first season because lower junior starting grades were over by the time she was certified.

Fortunately, Leah was eventually assigned a mentor. “I learned more in 30 minutes with a mentor than I did during any online training.”

This coupled with Leah’s requirement to attend a local association meeting. Her response to being the only younger person, and female, in the room - “it was scary”.


Ryan – Young soccer referee

In comparison, Ryan’s experience appeared more positive. With only 3-4 hours of online training followed by 2 x 2 hour clinics on consecutive days provided a much more hands on experience. There were even a few fellow younger officials in the clinics.

“I was provided a mentor for my first few matches. It was extremely beneficial.”

Not with standing, soccer has other challenges, including the various levels of fees required to be paid to become a certified official and the additional requirements of purchasing various colours of refereeing shirts.


What can the industry do to attract more young officials?

Leah: “Make it easier to try it out.”

Ryan: “Better promote the benefits of pay and flexibility.”

What is the best way to train new officials?

Leah: “Online training is helpful, but I learned a lot more with a mentor. Most learning occurs on the court.”

Ryan: “I think it should be a combination of both.”


Whether or not those from officiating associations, state or national sporting bodies agree with Leah and Ryan, the message is loud and clear; unless things are changed, the shortage and ageing of your sports officiating workforce will continue.

A full year has passed after this session was held by the peak body representing the interests of sporting officials. So, what has changed?

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