CINCINNATI — The Ohio High School Athletic Association is down 1,282 officials for varsity-sanctioned sports compared to the 2019-20 school year, but the state's governing body for 817 high school member schools is hopeful for a change in the trend.
"I think there is a whole bunch of things that we are looking at in Ohio to try to recruit more officials," OHSAA executive director Doug Ute said. "I would say this is not an Ohio problem, it's a problem across the country. I'm in discussions with other executive directors about, 'Hey what are you doing to recruit and retain good officials?'"
OHSAA has 13,369 officials this week compared to 14,651 officials during the 2019-20 school year. The state is down 1.6% overall from the 2020-21 school year (13,585 officials).
The numbers are reflective of a "major issue across the country" with a decline in officials, according to National Federation of State High School Associations chief executive officer Dr. Karissa Niehoff.
Reasons for the decline are varied from financial considerations, game start times and hospitality issues to the COVID-19 pandemic and unsportsmanlike fan behavior.
"It's easy to complain and it's easy to officiate from the stands," said Dana Pappas, the NFHS director of officiating services. "But the harder part is actually getting out there and doing it. So I think parents, fans need to respect what officials are doing."
The NFHS said there has been a reduction of 34,000 officials across 43 states from the 2018-19 school year. The estimate could be closer to 50,000 given that some larger state associations don't have a similar reporting system.
This spring, multiple OHSAA sports have seen declines. Baseball has seen a reduction of 232 umpires or 7.8% statewide since 2021, according to OHSAA data.
"The recruitment has just been tremendously down," said Greg Kramer, a baseball umpire assignor for 49 Greater Cincinnati schools including six conferences. "Last year, I want to say there were like 12 (new umpires). And this year we had seven. And that's down from anywhere from an average of 25-30 prior to last year. It's killing us."
Kramer said unruly fan behavior continues to be a significant deterrent for umpires.
"I've had several already this year tell me that parents follow them out to their car," Kramer said. "It discourages them. It's like they just want to do it anymore."
Softball has seen a 6.6% loss in umpires while boys lacrosse (6.2% decrease) and girls lacrosse (4.4% decrease) officials have also declined in participation.
"We definitely need help with recruiting," said John Hunt, a Southwest Ohio girls lacrosse assignor and official. "Also, there is a lot of licenses so to speak, and/or dues that an official owes. If we could figure out a way to cut back on some of that. There are several hundred dollars of start-up fees so to speak for a new official."
Ute acknowledged the officiating recruitment obstacles but said the OHSAA has partnered with Indianapolis-based RefPrep which offers online officiating education.
OHSAA hosted a conference call this past winter with more than 80 schools to share information about how to get high school students involved with officiating starting at the youth levels.
"We're talking with the (Ohio) Department of Education right now on how do we make this a physical education credit for students in high school or a workforce development credit for graduation," Ute said.
The NFHS is also seeking solutions at the national level to share with state associations. It is hosting its first National Officials Consortium Summit next week where dozens of national sports organizations plan to collaborate on officiating participation from youth to professional levels and ways to increase sportsmanship and educate families of student-athletes.
Pappas said educating families about the need to respect officials is of utmost importance for the future of high school sports.
"When the pandemic hit, everybody was, 'We just want our kids to play, this is so sad, there is no sports, our kids don't get to play,''" Pappas said. "'But what they don't understand is they are becoming the next pandemic. Bad behavior, bad sportsmanship — all of those things. Every day you look on the news and see an official getting assaulted. And they don't understand that without officials you are going to be in the exact same place as you were with the pandemic."