2016-12-08 / Sports

Dwindling, Aging Pool of Officials Still Impacts Winter High School Sports Schedules

By John Raffel

Each sports season brings challenges to a high school athletic director such as LaSalle’s Marty Spencer. Challenges during the winter include finding teams to fill out schedules and having enough officials available to work all the games.

So far so good, although Mr. Spencer, also the Saints football coach, and others worry about what the future could hold, especially for finding sports officials.

Media and content coordinator Geoff Kimmerly from the Michigan High School Athletic Association in Lansing acknowledged having enough officials for various sports continues to be a challenge statewide.

“It’s not a big school thing, a small school thing, or a U.P. or a Lower Peninsula thing,” he said. “We just have fewer officials now than we’ve ever had. We track this pretty regularly. When the economy is doing better, the numbers go down, but when people are going though times financially, the numbers tend to go back up.”

The search for officials isn’t necessarily a geographic issue. But Mr. Kimmerly did acknowledge areas with higher populations like Detroit, Grand Rapids, Lansing, and Saginaw would likely have a larger pool of registered officials available than St. Ignace.

“But I do know of some small town guys, men and women, that are officials in small towns and do games in every town around them,” Mr. Kimmerly said.

Athletic directors such as Mr. Spencer, as well as the Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA), also note that the average age of officials is climbing.

The MHSAA widely publicizes the need for officials and encourages athletic directors to identify students to consider a career in officiating and work games at junior high and elementary levels to get a taste of it.

“We’ve stepped up recruiting efforts the last couple of years,” Mr. Kimmerly said. “We have people from our office and all over the state that are going to different events where there might be a lot of people. They’ll put up booths at a local county fair and things like that and talk about why being an official is a great way to stay in touch with the game and make extra money.”

“Typically, when I first started being AD, I only liked to hire officials for one boys game and one girls game,” Mr. Spencer said. “I’m an official and don’t think it’s great to go to the same place two or three times a season. At the beginning, we had enough officials. As time has worn on, I’m an official and I’m 56 and might be considered one of the younger officials. Officials are working four to five nights a week. Finding them, I know, is becoming more difficult…Travel is a big thing. I already have my officials for next year done, but I know right now I have two or three sets of officials doing two or three games. That’s a little different philosophy for me. It’s going to be tougher.”

Mr. Spencer concurs with the MHSAA that it’s imperative to recruit younger officials. But it might be easier said than done.

“You have them do junior high games, and they get yelled and hollered at, and they’re getting $30 to do a junior high game? They’re turning their stuff in and don’t want to do it,” Mr. Spencer said. “We, as fans and coaches, need to understand if we’re going to keep officials going, we have to treat them way better. I don’t know how that’s going to change, but young people just aren’t getting into it.

“When I heard the average age of officials in Michigan was 52 or 53 and I’m 56, I’m average age. That means a lot of guys older than me are officiating. It’s tougher to get up and down the court.”

Finding opponents is a challenge at times. LaSalle has eight conference games for its 20-contest basketball schedules. That means finding 12 nonleague opponents.

“That hasn’t been too hard,” Mr. Spencer said, adding that his teams play most of the other U.P. schools. “They have open dates and it cuts down travel for all the schools We’ve had good relations with Gaylord and Charlevoix over the years. It’s a little tougher in the girls [program]. Sometimes we have played in the Detroit tournament, and sometimes we haven’t…

“But we’re more centrally located, being right at the Mackinac Bridge, while it might be tougher for Sault Ste. Marie and some of those where there’s more travel involved. You try to upgrade your schedule, but in this day and age with cost, you want to try to cut down on travel as much as you can. Our budget doesn’t cover transportation for athletics. The more miles, the more it’s going to cost. There’s a lot of things you have to consider. Quality of opponents is one of the facets, but it isn’t the only one.”

In the fall, LaSalle High School has continued to work with 11- player football, while many Upper Peninsula schools, especially those in Class D, have switched to the 8- player game and are eligible for the playoff format.

“We have a handful of Class C schools going to 8-player, knowing they’re not eligible for the playoffs,” Mr. Kimmerly said. “Most of our Class D U.P. schools have gone to 8-player for football, especially in the past couple of years when it’s grown quite a bit. Having said that, St. Ignace hovers between Class D and C and have had a lot of success with 11-player programs, and play mostly downstate schools.”

Now that snow will be hitting the area, athletic directors will also face school cancellations and rescheduling challenges. It can be a challenge in January and February to make up games, when there are two games already booked for a week.

Mr. Spencer likes having the option of playing games even if school is cancelled for the day.

“You could have an ice storm, and no school, but then the ice is melted by 1 p.m,” he said.

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