Illinois High School Sports

‘Not a simple problem:’ With officiating numbers in decline, administrators seek sustainable solutions

IHSA referees stand by during a timeout at the game between Joliet Central against Joliet West.

The idea was simple enough. Laurie Jordan started serving as an IHSA official because she believed youth sports were essential for children.

“There’s a lot more to it than just making that check,” Jordan said. “You’re helping those athletes learn to deal with adversity.”

Now, more than 20 years later, Jordan still is an official and also serves as the president of the Inter-Athletic Council of Officials.

Jordan’s simple idea, however, has become much more complex.

What started out as a way to give back to her community for a couple of years while her sons finished their youth sports careers has transformed into a passion with one big question for the future: How do we get enough people involved in officiating to keep the current level of youth sports sustainable?

Even when accounting for newly licensed officials, the IHSA has lost a net total of 3,992 officials since 2012, a trend further accelerated by the pandemic. Low pay rates, long travel, the significant time commitment and verbal abuse from fans, coaches and players often are cited as reasons.

Officials like Jordan are left trying to solve a puzzle and wondering if all the pieces are even there.

“It’s not a simple problem with a simple answer,” Jordan said. “There’s many factors that are involved.”

‘Banging our head on this forever’

Michael Skrabis has watched the numbers dwindle. He’s looked for ways to stop the trend.

Skrabis, the Joliet Basketball Officials president, served on the IHSA’s Officials Advisory Committee and heard dire stories from coaches, administrators and officials from across the state involved with various sports.

“We’ve been banging our head on this forever,” Skrabis said. “How do we find new officials, how do you find them?”

Referee Marty Munns gives the pre-game talk before the boys varsity football game between Hinsdale Central and Lyons Township on Friday, Sept. 9, 2022 in Western Springs, IL.

The downward trend started a decade ago when there were 13,694 officials licensed for the 2012-13 school year, according to data provided by the IHSA. That number stood at 9,702 for the 2021-22 school year, the most-recent figures available.

Between the 2018-19 and 2019-20 school years, 891 officials left. The biggest drop was between 2019-20 and 2020-21 when 1,505 officials left during the COVID-19 pandemic.

By sport, basketball has experienced the biggest drop from 2011, losing 1,934 officials; baseball lost 1,771 and football lost 772. Three sports gained officials: cross-country (91), diving (36) and girls lacrosse (19).

“It’s frustrating when you’re seeing the sport that you really love and you know it’s not happening, there’s nobody new coming in behind you,” DuPage Officials Association president Stephen Paynter said. “That’s an issue because you’re afraid of what’s going to happen down the road.”

So how do you solve a problem with no clear solution?

Paynter, Skrabis and Jordan have all tried different ways to encourage young people to join. The Inter-Athletic Council of Officials’ (IACO) mission is to foster and promote amateur sports by recruiting, training and educating officials.

IACO runs clinics both in person and virtually, where new trainees learn everything they need to know in order to become an official. Once they’re done with the six-week classes, many are encouraged to join their local association, with many hosting additional clinics and mentor programs to help newer officials learn from veterans.

Organizations have also sent out emails and text messages to colleges, junior colleges and high schools, posted filers, set up booths at state championship events and even sent QR codes. Skrabis went a step further by using his free time to attend career fairs at his alma mater Andrew High School, but the effort hasn’t resulted in an uptick of new sign-ups yet.

Paynter, Skrabis and Jordan are caught in a balancing act between trying to find new recruits and their professional careers. Officiating is a side job or hobby for many officials, so there’s not much time in the day to dedicate to looking for solutions after working their day job and picking up games to officiate each week.

There’s frustration in their voices when they talk about the dwindling numbers, but all three leaders know they can’t stop trying to find solutions.

“If someone knew how to fix the problem, we would’ve done it already,” Skrabis said. “We need to think about ideas and ways to find new people. I hope it gets better quickly.”

Adjusting with the times

Phil Jerbi understands the financial benefits officiating used to offer young officials.

The Genoa-Kingston athletic director officiated five different sports for 22 years and made between $7,000 to $10,000 a year before he took over at the school.

Phil Jerbi instructs a drafting class at Genoa-Kingston High School

But pay rates didn’t keep up with the economy over the past decade, leading many to abandon officiating during the pandemic.

“A lot of our younger officials looked upon that money they made to officiate, that was part of their family income, what they needed to support their families,” Jerbi said. “So a lot of them went and found other part-time jobs at that time to fill the void. Now that sports are back to normal, a lot of those people aren’t coming back.”

Organizations such as the Northern Illinois Schools Officials Committee (NISOC), a committee made of school administrators and officials whose goal is to create consistent pay for all schools in northeastern Illinois, have worked to increase pay for the current school year. Pay for a varsity football game went from $76 to $112, varsity basketball increased from $70 to $77, volleyball rose by a dollar to $61 and baseball and softball went from $67.50 to $75.

Adjusting with the times, however, will come at a cost for schools. Jerbi said the number of games a school hosts each year varies, but Genoa-Kingston has averaged paying officials about $32,000 per school year. He expects those numbers to increase dramatically with the higher rates.

Many conferences in northeastern Illinois adopted the NISOC rates. Most Catholic schools offer about $5 more. Athletic directors from each school vote to determine whether the conference will adopt NISOC’s rate or set its own rate. Each school hosting an event then pays officials from its athletic budget.

Jerbi is conflicted about schools finally adjusting the wages. He recognizes why NISOC is adopting higher rates but worries that smaller schools might get left behind.

“It’s placed a major burden on the smaller school districts that do not have the type of flexibility in their budget that some of the larger, more suburban schools have,” Jerbi said. “For NISOC to come out with the rates that they have this past spring, some of the smaller schools are having a hard time trying to budget for that because our budgets and schedules are set 10 to 12 months in advance.”

Other schools, such as Oregon, are worried about competing in or hosting tournaments as schools increase their entry fees to account for higher officiating costs. Rates are expected to rise by a few dollars over the next couple of years and Oregon athletic director Mike Lawton thinks decisions about whether to attend or host tournaments could become an important conversation in the near future.

“That is something I think we’re not there yet. I worry that it may become a point where the cost of running a tournament isn’t worth having the tournament anymore,” Lawton said. “That would be sad.”

Hopeful solutions

IHSA executive director Craig Anderson is encouraged by the initiatives he’s seen to improve the number of officials.

“I think we’re in a pretty good spot, at least that’s the sense that I get,” Anderson said. “We obviously need younger officials to take on this opportunity in certain sports, the age at which we have officials working is continuing to climb; the average age is climbing as more are going to seek retirement over the next few years.”

New IHSA executive director Craig Anderson will take over on Jan. 18, 2016

The IHSA had a net gain of 19 officials between the 2020-21 and 2021-22 school years. Anderson credited some of that success to IHSA initiatives. It has offered two licensing waivers during the last couple of years – to graduating seniors and also veterans. The waiver applies to the $70 first sport fee officials must pay when registering.

At its December meeting, the IHSA board of directors also approved a recommendation to allow provisional licenses for 15 and 16 year olds to officiate events through the freshman level. The provisional license will cost $20 or less and will lead to a discount if someone continues to officiate and applies for a full license when they turn 17.

“We’re hoping with some of these initiatives, some of which we haven’t even produced yet, some of those things might encourage them to give it a try,” Anderson said.

But those familiar with the shortage worry those initiatives don’t resolve a vital concern, according to Richmond-Burton athletic director Tim Jackson.

“We need to stress sportsmanship to our kids and parents and coaches, make sure we treat the officials how they should be treated, because if we don’t, we’re going to keep losing officials and we’re going to have to cancel games,” Jackson said.

Many veteran officials – with Paynter, Skrabis and Jordan among them – believe young officials don’t join or don’t come back because of the verbal abuse they experience, particularly while working in the lower levels of high school sports.

Many have asked for a zero-tolerance policy. Anderson said there hasn’t been demand from members for such a policy and pointed out that there have been different initiatives to promote sportsmanship, including the National Federation of High School’s “Bench Bad Behavior” promotion.

Anderson has seen change both in the numbers and administrators’ actions that he said leaves him encouraged that current initiatives are effectively combating harassment.

Some school administrators have put more emphasis on making sure officials are treated fairly and stepping in when they hear or see something.

“I think just being transparent with people and being able to pivot when necessary is the most important part of this job right now,” Jackson said.

Jordan and her colleagues aren’t going to stop looking for solutions. She isn’t willing to sit by idle because not enough was done to ensure children won’t lose opportunities down the road because of declining officiating numbers.

“Once you get them in that uniform and give them a positive experience, they love it,” Jordan said. “It’s really fulfilling. It’s really satisfying.”

Michal Dwojak

Michal Dwojak

Michal is an award-winning sports journalist based in Chicago. He most recently served as the sports editor of The Glenview Lantern and Northbrook Tower and is a graduate of the College of Media at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.