Prep sports officiating shortage approaching dire territory as fall season concludes
In the eyes of Rifle High School Athletic Director Chris Bomba, the Western Slope is faring ever so slightly better than metropolitan Denver in its ability to keep officiating staffs for its prep sports events rostered.
Yet better is a relative term, and the officiating shortage isn’t improving as fall seasons conclude and winter sports approach. Through schedule changes and increased flexibility, the Western Slope survived fall sports. Bending much further could lead to a break, according to Bomba.
“We’re very close to having a huge issue here,” Bomba said.
Adjustments had to be made. On Sept. 3, the start of Glenwood Springs at Rifle football — one of the region’s marquee rivalry matchups across all high school sports — was delayed more than a half an hour as the teams awaited the arrival of officials after the same crew worked the Coal Ridge vs. Grand Valley match in New Castle.
Bomba said officials in volleyball and softball were particularly strained. He added that one volleyball official worked six to seven matchups — each potentially including C-Team, junior varsity and varsity matches — in one week.
But it could be worse — Colorado West Custom Sports officials assignor Chuck Nissen said that by week five of the football season, around 70 football games had their dates changed on the Eastern Slope.
“Since I’ve been a coach, I’ve never heard that happening,” Bomba said.
The issues originate from older referees aging out and younger people not having interest in filling the void, Nissen said. The same issues that dissuade youth from joining — compensation, time commitment and abuse — are also expediting the exodus.
“There’s a lot of factors,” Nissen said. “Jobs are a factor. Families are a factor. Sportsmanship is a factor.”
Nissen also highlighted compensation. Colorado High School Activities Association football officials make $63 a game, according to its website. Including extended travel — which can be necessary on the Western Slope — wage rate can dip below minimum wage for a football game.
Nissen said that Colorado is in the bottom five states in officials compensation.
He said that ideas like dropping time commitment for meetings, lowering required test scores and other creative options have been explored to lure new recruits. A grassroots campaign to recruit parents, siblings, former athletes and others close to the action has been the most fruitful effort. But it’s clearly not enough.
“We’re going to have to come up with some new ideas and change our ways of thinking,” Nissen said.
An inflection point is approaching in Bomba’s eyes. If new ideas don’t come soon and don’t help the problem, it could jeopardize not just individual varsity events, but the concept of varsity sports as a whole on the Western Slope.
“The thing I fear is that if we can’t have officials, that’s a quick way to turn into club sports,” Bomba said.
His belief is that the lower bar for club officials certification can lead to a fix for the shortage. That means less direct school funding, more direct parent funding, fewer access to resources and a lower quality that could impact scholarship offerings and more.
For now, the best solution Bomba, Nissen and CHSAA has is to continue recruiting. Information on becoming a referee is available on the CHSAA website.
“Help be part of the solution,” Bomba said. “It’s a great way to get to know the kids. It’s a great way to know the community and be involved with our high school.”
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