In 2023, athletes in the region will participate in thousands of competitions involving Sanford Sports venues. These will include basketball games and volleyball games indoors, as well as an outdoor schedule that will be much busier than it has been in the past.
The addition of 18 fully lit synthetic playing fields spread out over the Sanford Health Sports Complex in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, will spike the activity level considerably at a place that was already busy.
At the same time this game-changing expansion of facilities is advancing, the nation is experiencing declining numbers of sports officials.
That includes the Upper Midwest. Opinions may vary on why this shortage exists but there is no debating the potential impact of a lack of officials.
If you don’t have them, you can’t play.
They provide an environment in which rules are followed, safety is a priority, and a sense of order prevails. When there are no officials, athletes can’t compete the way their parents did.
“Officials set a tone for a game,” said Freddy Coleman, director of the Sanford POWER Basketball Academy. “They allow kids to have great experiences with the sports we all love. When they’re consistently getting badgered by parents and coaches, it just creates a negative experience for the athlete.”
Officiating shortage by the numbers
Causes for diminishing numbers fall into several categories but on a national scale, a decline in fan behavior is cited frequently. Viral videos of parents, spectators and coaches fighting with officials steadily remind us that not every person witnessing a live sporting event is following the Golden Rule.
“I see how demanding parents are in the stands and how demanding coaches are on the sidelines and how that’s always changing,” Coleman said. “It’s affecting people who might otherwise want to participate as officials in youth athletics. I feel like every year it’s getting worse and worse.”
The drop in numbers has been severe. According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, 50,000 high school referees – roughly 20% of the nationwide total – quit between 2018 and 2021.
The impact of this mass departure could lead to fewer games being played, especially at the youth level, and fewer sports offered overall.
“There is no question that youth sports is becoming a big part of peoples’ lives,” said Todd Kolb, who oversees all Sanford sports academies. “It’s not just in South Dakota or in the Sanford community, but across the board. There are high school seasons and club seasons, too. Thirty years ago we had high school seasons and that was it.”
Officials are humans too
Attributing the whole problem to uncivil fans is an oversimplification of a problem that has several layers.
Brenda Hilton is founder and CEO of Officially Human, an organization that aspires to restore respect to sports officials. She also serves as the Big Ten’s senior director, officiating.
Hilton began officiallyhuman.com in 2019 to serve as a resource for game officials. The mission is to promote positive treatment of officials via increased education and communication with administrators, coaches and fans.
“I’m working on trying to raise awareness and change people’s perspectives of how they view officials,” she said. “At the end of the day I look at the bigger message of what youth sports brings to everybody. Think about what sports bring to a community, to a child, to a parent. And think about the friendships that you develop when your kids are in youth sports. Some of those can be lifelong friendships. I think in many cases we’ve lost sight of that.”
Hilton’s organization conducted a survey in 2019 that included 19,000 officials nationwide from 15 states. In the survey, 55% cited verbal abuse from parents and fans as the top reason officials leave the profession.
When Andy Gillham, Ph.D., Sanford Sports’ lead performance psychology specialist, talks with officials about the challenges of the job, he sends a realistic message: There are elements of this role that are going to be unpleasant.
“It’s unfortunate but it’s part of the gig,” Gillham said. “If you don’t like it – and no one does – the only mediating factor is to remember that it’s the other person causing the trouble. The adult or young person yelling at the official is causing the trouble. They’re the ones being emotional. And if the official responds to that in an emotional way, it’s not going to go well.”
So instead, Gillham encourages officials to get past those potential complications by focusing on the rules.
“We try to give them the tools to sort through it – get to the content,” he said. “It’s a way to defuse a situation without dealing with the emotional piece. Focus on the content, not the emotions.”
For the love of the sport
In the same Officially Human survey, 70% of officials said they did what they did because they loved sports. The added income definitely factors into why people get involved but for most it begins with wanting to stay involved.
“For officials it’s a way to continue to enjoy sports and make some money doing it,” Gillham said. “But for some people there comes a time when they decide they don’t want to go through the heartache and the verbal abuse to make that money. The balance gets out of whack and it’s just not worth it anymore.”
Out-of-line fan behavior can create a spiraling effect, Gillham said. Parents won’t encourage their kids to get into officiating because they have been in the stands and heard and seen how other fans are acting. Gillham has witnessed extremes in fan behavior and – more troubling – the acceptance of those extremes.
“When something happens, people are not saying, ‘That’s not OK. You don’t talk to people that way,’” Gillham said. “We have these kinds of things happening at an 8-year-old rec soccer game and we’re not teaching our children how to behave in these environments.”
The Officially Human report also revealed that 50% of officials surveyed are 55 years or older. Only 12% are under the age of 34.
Those demographics shape a challenging narrative for the future.
“We have to recruit more young officials, both men and women, and work with them,” said Steve Brinson, a longtime official who lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, and officiates high school games in Minnesota with visits to the Sanford Pentagon for summer tournaments.
“The best thing we can do is set up mentorships. It’s important to have a lot of the older officials like me work with the new officials. It’s a way to get them better, bring them along and get them up to speed. It could go a long way toward doing the things that need to happen.”
Getting younger officials in the game
Chris Janisch, 34, and Drake Lower, 37, both officiate high school basketball games at the Pentagon and at high schools in the area. Both are part of an age group that is not as interested in becoming officials as earlier generations. It has many wondering if the shortages will get worse before they get better.
Janisch and Lower enjoy the work, however. Like so many others, they grew up around sports and wanted to stay involved.
Lower remembers attending a basketball game at South Dakota State University several years ago and focusing on the referees. It wasn’t an attempt to find a reason to yell at them. Instead he was watching how they worked.
“They were so good at what they did,” Lower said. “When they blew the whistle, yes, there was a foul. Or a travel. It was a time when I was just getting done with school and was looking for ways to stay active. I’d been an athlete my whole life and I wanted something to replace that.”
He registered with the South Dakota High School Activities Association and was officiating high school games shortly thereafter. Not a typical jump – most begin with younger age groups – but he accommodated the challenges of the profession gracefully.
“I really tried to get to know the other referees and the coaches,” Lower said. “You have to develop a trust. When you do that, the coaches know how you work. It’s really a learning experience for everybody. When you’re just starting out you have to be confident but you also have to be willing to learn.”
Janisch began officiating basketball games seven years ago. As a teacher and middle school athletic coordinator, he was around youth sports a lot and, like Lower, became intrigued by the idea of staying close to the action.
A friend recommended he try it and in his words he “got the bug.” He now works a steady schedule of high school and college games through the basketball season and also officiates spring and summer tournaments.
“If I was doing it over again the one thing I’d change is that I would have gotten involved a little earlier – right out of college,” said Janisch, an all-conference linebacker at Augustana University. “I have thoroughly enjoyed it.”
He can unofficially confirm what national surveys tell us is also true in the region: Most of his colleagues are over the age of 35.
“I could count on one hand the people who are in that 30-35 age range who are officiating in the area,” Janisch said. “Most of the guys I work with are in their 40s and 50s. I look at it as one of the benefits, personally, to have different officiating partners that you might not get to know otherwise. You make some lifetime friendships.”
Making games possible
Janisch has seen a lot of the videos that make the rounds involving fans and coaches becoming unhinged. To those apprehensive about entering the field of officiating based on fears that they’re walking into a mess, he offers assurances.
“I think there’s a misconception out there,” he said. “You go on Twitter or YouTube and/or you read about incidents, and you can think it’s going to happen to you. But those things are few and far between, especially in our part of the country.”
When fans enter the Sanford Pentagon, they see Officially Human signs posted throughout the facility. The message and goal: Elevate respect for officials’ roles in making games possible and treat them like real people.
It is part of a nationwide effort by this organization to get the word out. While the worst examples are isolated incidents, improving sports officials’ work atmosphere is vital to getting more people involved.
“If it’s 5% of the fans that are loud and getting all the attention, let’s see if we can get that down to 4.6% in one year,” Hilton said. “Then let’s get it down to 4%. And someday, let’s get the really mean people watching games down to 1%. We’re working on trying to change people’s perspective. We’re trying to sell something that will change society. It’s not a service that somebody needs; it’s an attempt to raise awareness.”
‘I can still be part of the sport’
There is reason for hope. There are people who remain intrigued by the idea of giving back to sports they loved by becoming officials. Becky Flynn is a retired teacher in Beresford, South Dakota, who coached high school volleyball in Chamberlain and Beresford for more than 20 years.
Very recently, she decided to share her knowledge of the game by becoming an official. She officiates volleyball matches from youth to high school levels.
“A friend will come up to me and say, ‘Hi Becky, I heard you’re reffing? How is it going?’” she said. “And I tell them, ‘I love reffing because I can still be part of the sport.’ I never thought I would become a ref or anything like that but I knew when I retired I wasn’t going to just sit back and do nothing. This is one way I can stay involved.”
Laurie Thompson has been coordinating staffing of volleyball officials at the Sanford Pentagon since it opened and will be will be entering her 17th year as a club, high school and college volleyball official herself. As someone involved in staffing tournaments and camps at the facility, she has a vested interest in bringing more people into the field.
“We are always looking for young people to get involved,” she said. “I’ve found that the best refs are the players. They know the game inside and out. … We work on one thing at a time and we work on specific things. If you’re starting out with middle school and you’re the only official, just start it and finish it and make sure the girls have a good experience. Sometimes a newer official will be like ‘Oh, I didn’t get that one right.’ But I tell them they’ll be fine – it just takes a little bit of time.”
During the summer when he’s refereeing youth tournaments, Lower will talk to players between basketball games encouraging them to consider officiating when they get older.
“I tell them it’s a great thing to try,” Lower said. “And I talk to them about how that adrenaline rush I got before a basketball game as a player is the same feeling I get when I referee. We’re still competing. We’re trying to get every play right. It’s never going to happen but we try. I absolutely love it.”
That kind of stewardship of the profession is admirable. But also crucial. Presenting the craft in a positive light will need to be part of boosting the numbers of officials in all sports. Getting there will necessarily provide both opportunities and support.
“As referees we’re independent contractors – we’re not Sanford employees,” Janisch said. “But we’re treated like rock stars at the Pentagon and they know us on a first-name basis. Much like any workplace, it becomes a community. It’s like a second family. There’s no doubt that exists at the Pentagon.”
Ideally, establishing that same kind of environment can extend beyond the court to the spectators. We’re all officially human, after all.
“Pause before you walk into a competition of your child and remember why you’re there,” Hilton said. “And why are you there? You’re there to give your child life experience. You’re there to give your child the opportunity to work with a team and to accept winning and losing and good calls and bad calls.”