“In my opinion we are at a crisis level,” said Scott Busch, a Creston native who’s been officiating sporting events for more than two decades. “Nobody can get sick. Nobody can get hurt because we don’t have the extras to fill in.”
The Panthers haven’t had to cancel or relocate a game due to a lack of referees yet, but Busch said it could be coming if more people don’t step in to the role.
“We lost five veteran officials just this year,” he said. “Moved away, health concerns or injuries, jobs elsewhere that conflicted.”
Like many other shortages, this problem started during the pandemic when older officials felt uncomfortable traveling from town to town and being around kids. “They didn’t want to be around the concerns of COVID, but they continued sporting events,” Busch said. “The vacancies are maybe a little bit more highlighted because you take a veteran who has been there for 20, 25, 30 years. They have that experience. When you take that veteran experience away, you notice that void more than you notice the new guy or gal in their first year or two filling in that void.”
Busch said getting started is the hardest part of becoming an official, but once in the profession, it becomes more than a side job.
“The majority of us officials do multiple sports,” he said. “It’s the love of it, the passion for it. You start at one sport, go to a second sport, see the money income is available. It becomes a hobby.”
Being an official is a passion for Busch, but he recognizes the sacrifices he’s made over the years for it. “It’s time consuming,” he said. “I’ve missed multiple events for my children so other children can participate. We give up time with our own family.”
As the number of officials has shrunk, the time commitment has increased for active referees and umpires.
“Ten years ago we probably had over 5,000 total officials. This year, we’ll have about 3,800 to 3,900,” said Lewie Curtis, Iowa High School Athletic Association (IHSAA) director of officials.
The biggest local challenge is covering all events occurring on one night. Busch said football is the most difficult sport to cover because it requires the most officials on the field. A varsity game has a crew of five men and women out there, and even the lower levels need at least four.
“We’re working every night, spending more and more time away from our families” Busch said. “The adversity of a lesser number of officials with multiple games to be covered puts a strain on officials physically - knees, back, feet. Mentally, working every night. We need an extra body to take a night or two. We aren’t asking for every night off.”
The Creston Activities Director, Scott Driskell put out a call for officials on social media Monday. The tweet stated, “The officials shortage has hit us in Creston. If you are interested in officiating MS or sub-varsity football or basketball, contact me immediately! We need help as we are struggling to fill our games.”
The Iowa High School Girls Athletic Union sanctioned girls wrestling as a sport this year, and Creston plans to partner with Lenox and East Union to get a team going. “It’s interesting, intriguing to know girls wrestling can take off now and go, but if we don’t have the officials for it, what good does it do those girls?” Busch said.
The job pays well at $25-$30 an hour, but even the money isn’t enough to convince people take the first step. “It’s a fear of getting started and not knowing what to do,” Busch said. “We would take officials for a single sport or multiple sports. It’s breaking that barrier mentally. There’s great money to be made.”
The easiest way to get started is to visit the IHSAA or IHSGAU website under “become an official” for a step-by-step process on how to become licensed. There are free clinics locally, and they’ve even considered a sports officiating class option at Southwestern Community College.
“The officials have just always been there. It’s an aspect that all of us realize is part of the game, but it’s behind the scenes work,” Busch said. “If they’re not there, the contest doesn’t take place. You can build the biggest and the best gym, but it’s not going to happen if the officials aren’t there.”
Anyone with questions should reach out to a veteran official, school coaches or an athletic director to be pointed in the right direction. “Kids are going to suffer,” Busch said. “It’s on us adults to step up to help our kids out. All the kids.”