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What's driving the ref shortage in metro Detroit?

Posted at 8:40 PM, Aug 22, 2021

WXYZ — The ref shortage is growing across metro Detroit. It's a big problem with fall games around the corner, and dedicated athletes ready to compete.

We found out there's two big factors driving refs to the sidelines. The first? Fears over COVID-19 have refs quitting the business -- or not returning at all.

The second reason has been a problem for decades: parents and coaches, not playing nice with officials!

Brent Rice, the Assistant Director of the Michigan High School Athletic Association, says it's not unusual to see a 3% to 5% annual decline in referees. But over the last year, the MHSAA lost 14% of officials from the previous year. Fortunately, hope is on the horizon.

"We are in the process of registration so we don't know what those numbers look like. It does look like there's a little bit of a bounce coming back, which is positive at this time," Rice shared.

Rice says refs usually drop off in every sport. However, this year there's noteworthy declines in football and basketball. With COVID concerns in play, we tried to find out what's being done to put refs at ease.

MHSAA leadership says it's constantly reevaluating protocols for refs and listening to guidance from the Michigan Department of Human and Health Services. Refs can also protect themselves by taking precautions where they see fit.

John Douglas, a soccer official at the collegiate level, says the ref shortage goes beyond high school sports. Douglas says around 60% of Michigan soccer refs disappeared during the pandemic -- making an ongoing problem even worse.

"We were already short-staffed by 30% to 40% -- and then COVID cut our numbers by another 50% to 60% -- so we're probably at like a quarter of where we'd like to be with numbers," Douglas offered.

Along with COVID, Douglas points to pressure for a big reason refs are packing up their bags for good. Sometimes -- they even choose jobs that pay less!

"You're not doing that job while running and sweating and being yelled at and having adrenaline coursing through your body," explained Douglas.

Recruiting new officials or convincing old ones to return isn't easy. The Michigan Referee Committee does offer incentives at times. That includes everything from waiving registration fees to covering uniform costs.

Both Douglas and Rice say for the ref shortage to improve, coaches and parents need to improve first.

"There's been kind of a general disdain for officials for a long time ... officials aren't being treated right," Rice told 7 Action News.

"Probably the ones that quit first are the worst, but we never give them the chance to become good ... if we don't start treating our referees kindly, you're not going to have a referee," Douglas warns.

Douglas says the best training for referees is on-the-job training. The college official says to expect to make some mistakes at first; it's all part of the process.

The Michigan High School Athletic Association is looking for refs ages 18 and up. You must be out of high school.

The Michigan Referee Committee is looking for soccer referees. You only have to be 13-years-old to apply. You can get started online.

Because of the shortage, expect the opportunity to pick up extra games. On the upside, extra games means more money in your pocket.