Oregon sees uptick in high school officials, but more greatly needed
A new high school sports season is on the horizon and with it comes new storylines, players and teams to follow throughout the prep year.
However, one story remains the same coming into 2022-23 — the need for more high school officials to make sure the games are actually played.
OSAA Executive Director Peter Weber said in the 2016-17 season, Oregon had about 3,600 officials across all sports for which the association helps wrangle officials for during the season (football, volleyball, soccer, basketball, wrestling, baseball, softball and cheerleading).
In 2020-21, the number across all sports dropped to 2,600, but there was an uptick this past season. Weber said the total figure was closer to 3,000 for the 2021-22 year.
While the increase is a good sign, it's not nearly enough to maintain the consistent schedules that Oregon high schools were accustomed to in years past.
"Ideally, you would be able to play the contest when you desire to play the content, but that just isn't the reality," Weber said. "We've seen soccer, traditionally a sport often played on Tuesdays and Thursdays in past years, well now, those games are taking place just about every day of the week because people are trying to find times when there are officials who are available."
Obviously the driving force behind the sharp decline was the COVID pandemic, but Weber noted there was a decline even before then.
There are many factors that have contributed to the decline, some financial. Weber, who just completed his 23rd year in the OSAA office, said he's seen the ebbs and flows over the years tied to the strength of the economy.
In tougher times, officials increase as people look to make a little extra cash. Better times see fewer people in the black and white.
For 2022-23, officials make $73.50 a game for football and basketball, $71.25 for wrestling, $70.75 for baseball, $67.50 for volleyball and $65.50 for softball and soccer. Officials' fees are based on a four-year block with 2022-23 as the final year for the current window that saw an increase in the fee each year.
Mileage also is paid out at 53 cents per mile for all sports with a couple potential adjustments in football depending on crew size and distance.
Anyone looking to sign up to be an official in Oregon can start by heading to osaa.org/officials to find the exact group for the sport and location one is interested in.
With those plans set to expire, Weber said the OSAA Fee Review Committee is starting discussions about the new four-year block.
Weber said he's certainly heard payment as a potential barrier for officials in the past, but expects the money to only increase.
"Certainly, those fees are going to increase, it's really a question of how much they're going to increase," Weber said. "Our executive board made a change for the coming year to increase the mileage rate that we pay … that's another thing that the committee will talk about as well and could make recommendations on maybe even increasing that further."
When it comes to Portland metro area football specifically, the story is pretty similar.
The Portland Football Officials Association covers games from St. Helens to Canby and Forest Grove to Corbett. PFOA recruiting chair Rob Fuller said the association stayed at about 190-200 officials pre-pandemic despite the rest of the country seeing a decline happen before that.
However, COVID hit and now Fuller said he's looking at about 150 officials coming into the new prep season.
Fuller said PFOA commissioner Carl Haessler has asked every school in the association's area to move one game to either Thursday or Saturday in order to avoid canceling any games due to lack of officials.
"We've asked every school to move a game because we can't do it," Fuller said.
The other issue with the fewer number of football officials is the experience level getting onto the varsity fields.
Normally, officials take two years of practice at the freshmen and JV levels before getting into varsity action. With the numbers down the way they are, the PFOA sometimes has had no choice but to put officials in that uncomfortable spot.
"The product kind of suffers when you do that," Fuller said. "You end up with officials potentially not seeing stuff or making the wrong call. … That comes with experience, so you put someone out there that's only done a handful of games, they're going to get eaten alive."
It's not all doom and gloom though, as Fuller is also part of the training with the PFOA and takes on training the new recruits. Fuller said his program gets officials ready in six weeks with the training moving onto the field with some soft run-throughs in week two of the training.
Fuller said he's heading into his 21st season working with the PFOA and has seen a normal ebb and flow in numbers as well. Usually 15-20 recruits come in each year with that class down to about six to eight by year three.
Based on that, Fuller expects it might take another five to eight years before PFOA can get back to the numbers it had prior to the pandemic.
"COVID just rocked us," Fuller said. "I think, like all of us, when you cancel everything off your calendar and then as the world gradually reopened and gradually started recommitting, we thought a little harder about what we chose to commit to and what we didn't. And that caused some people to say, 'I think I'm done officiating.'"
While the financial and time commitments are ever-changing, Fuller said being an official is a rewarding hobby if you're someone looking to stay connected to the sports community.
Most importantly, being an official allows folks to make lifelong friendships through meetups on Friday nights to talk about the ups and downs of all the games they covered that night.
"It's kind of morbid, but I tell people these guys and gals you're officiating with, they're going to be the ones at your funeral some day," Fuller said. "These are lifelong friendships. A lot of guys like me will work 20, 30, 40 years as an official and it's your hobby."
Anyone in the area looking to become an official with PFOA can head to www.pfoa.us to sign up with the first training coming up soon on July 19.
While adjustments in the schedule are sure to come for all sports in 2022-23, the uptick in the number of officials across the state is a positive.
Weber is quick to note it's still not enough to have things run the way it used to be, but getting the need out there via any channels the OSAA can use will be helpful toward filling the fields once more.
"It doesn't get us back to where we were, but it's trending back to where it was right before we went into the pandemic," Weber said. "It's still less than what we had in 2020, but those numbers are increasing, which is good."
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