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Local officials associations: ‘We’re in trouble’

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As a new school year approaches, Rogue Valley officials worry more than ever about members’ dwindling numbers

Officiating is in John Campbell’s blood, and might as well be considered part of the family business at this point in time.

Campbell was a football official for 37 years and, since retiring from on-field action, has served as Rogue Valley Football Officials Association commissioner for the past 10 years.

In that time, he’s seen just about everything when it comes to officiating and coordinating his officials — but none of that is making matters easier these days.

What worries Campbell now, along with just about every other commissioner of local officials organizations, is that the number of referees available is dwindling to dire levels — regardless of sport — with officials associations stretched as thin as ever and desperately seeking assistance.

“I’m constantly searching and hounding younger people to come in,” said Campbell, whose community service also extends to 28 years as a basketball official and 20 years as a baseball umpire. “The older guys are getting older and they’re getting tired, and they can’t move like they used to. Football, numbers-wise, it’s like money: I don’t have enough money and I don’t have enough officials. That’s the bottom line.”

Be it football or basketball, soccer or volleyball, baseball or softball, the number of officials available to respective commissioners in the Rogue Valley is more strained now than ever before.

The current crop of officials is getting older, and younger generations aren’t coming in with the same spirit to pay it forward as their predecessors.

“Right now, I’m trying to get as many people as possible,” Campbell said when asked about the void left by the older generation stepping aside. “We’re going to have two guys this year who will have 50 years in, and this is their last year. And they told me two years ago, ‘As soon as I hit 50 years, I’m done.’ How am I going to replace that? That’s going to be a challenge. That’s 100 years walking out the door.”

According to Rogue Valley Basketball Officials Association commissioner Vern Loy, the number of basketball officials dropped nearly 42% between the 2019-20 school year and the Oregon School Activities Association’s six-week spring schedule earlier this year.

Other sports have found themselves in the same situation, with decreased numbers of officials but still plenty of games on the docket — leading to coverage of more and more games per person.

The Rogue Valley Softball Umpires Association had 16 umpires registered, according to commissioner Don Alexander.

Rogue Valley Baseball Umpires Association commissioner Jerry Eklund had around 40 umpires at his disposal for this past high school baseball season, adding that “it’s a core group of 25 or 30 guys who have been around for a while.”

In football, Campbell had 58 officials, but also saw eight decide to opt out due to various reasons amid the pandemic.

There were 33 referees for soccer this past spring, while volleyball had all of 15 officials to cover matches at the high school level, with the added wrinkle of matches from other counties being moved to schools here in Jackson County because of COVID-19 restrictions for indoor sports.

“We had officials working every day except Sunday, and those guys worked a ton of matches,” Southern Oregon Volleyball commissioner JoAnn Hartley said. “I kind of felt sorry for them.”

“I don’t know how we covered it, I really don’t,” Hartley continued. “But this group pulled together and did it.”

Xavier Valdes was presented with quite the challenge himself after taking over the local soccer refereeing assignment duties earlier this year ahead of the spring season.

“I was given a list of eight names and they were the eight for sure who are coming back,” said Valdes, who had to undergo a massive recruiting effort just to get to the bare minimum of referees. “We service 14 high schools. We were able to get up to 33, and I am hoping to get most of them back.”

That hope springs eternal on retention of officials, but the reality is that most officials organizations — not only locally but statewide and nationwide — simply know that this is a numbers game they aren’t currently winning.

“We’re in trouble. We need people,” Alexander said, noting the average age of his umpiring contingent has been in the high-50s in recent years. “It’s just tough. I don’t think most people out there are really aware of it. We’re two or three trips to the emergency room from not doing a lot of games. Not just one or two, but a whole lot of games.”

The timing of some of the recent sports seasons has also played a part in referee shortages, with regular winter sports like basketball and wrestling taking place this past May and June.

“They held it outside of our normal season, which meant it messed everybody up who’s got family vacations and all that going on,” Rogue Valley Wrestling commissioner Lester McFall said. “They toned everything down to make things a minimal amount of events, so the guys covering it didn’t have a problem.

“We didn’t miss anything, and I had enough guys to cover everything that the schools gave me this year. Barely at times, but, yes, I had people.”

As many commissioners were quick to point out, their officials skew greatly toward the experienced but also an older generation, which meant putting quite a heavy workload in a short period of time on those of advanced age who either weren’t interested in such a schedule or were stretched thin in order to accommodate.

Because of the packed schedule this past spring, Loy said his basketball officials were tasked with working more than they ever have before to ensure that every game ended up being covered.

Other sports were in the same boat, having to shuffle games around at the middle school and high school levels just to ensure that every game had officials.

“This year I lost four officials this season despite the fact it was a six-week season, but there were 240 games we had to cover in those six weeks,” Loy said. “I knocked people out with backs, knees and hips because they were on the floor so much. Those people can’t do a 4 1/2-month game schedule — no way.”

Not all sports had their officials scrambling to ensure games were covered, but a lot of them saw that happen.

“From my end, I had to piece together guys,” Eklund said. “But we didn’t have to change any games, we didn’t have to ask anybody to move to a different date because of that. We’re close to that happening, though, because everybody wants to play on the same days.”

The worry, of course, is that only continues to be the trend as Oregon returns to a regular school year where seasons are expected to be at their traditional lengths and there will be even more games that need to be covered.

Having schools — especially the local ones in Class 6A and 5A — returning to their regular leagues with away games in other counties will likely help as opposed to the more regionally-based local-against-local schedules that we saw in the springtime, according to Alexander.

But teams returning to a more normal schedule doesn’t mean the need for more officials is suddenly eased.

“I’ve never had to drop a single slot in 20 years, and I’m hoping I don’t have to start this year,” Loy said. “It’s just something that no commissioner wants to ever do is to lose a game because they don’t have enough officials.”

The question is: What can be done to get more officials joining the local ranks?

Unfortunately, there is no simple answer, in any of the sports.

As Loy said, “recruiting is the biggest issue” currently presenting itself to commissioners.

“We gradually lose more people each year than we can gain,” Loy added, “so we’re always in a minus every year we start.”

Commissioners like Campbell, Loy and others have tried just about everything they can think of.

They’ve talked to people at games about venturing into officiating, highlighting the opportunity for extra pay and a means to remain active in the sports they love.

They try their best to keep in contact with former athletes who return to the Rogue Valley after college and are looking for work or maybe understand that someone was there for them in their playing days to officiate and it might be a rewarding deal to provide that for the next generation.

Some have had success, others have seen previous strategies either prove to not be as effective or simply no longer possible.

No matter what the case may be, it has forced commissioners to get creative.

“Every guy in the association, we’re constantly stressing to bring somebody with you,” Eklund said. “I’ve offered something like a cash reward — you bring somebody to a meeting with you, I’ll give you 50 or 100 bucks.”

McFall, who has been a part of the Rogue Valley’s wrestling community for close to 30 years, might be the one commissioner who has had the most success with adding a younger crop of officials.

“It’s not normal,” McFall said of having a solid group of young officials. “I’ve got a very good core group of guys, and I even have a really good core group of younger guys that are coming in that are doing a great job.”

He credits the ability to work with coaches and not have them be turned off by potential verbal abuse that might come during their first experiences as an official.

“I’ve been very open with the coaches and said, ‘Guys, go ahead and ride them and you’ll get the parent out of the stands next week and that will be your official because the guys are not going to come back,’” McFall said. “They realize I’m being serious about it.”

Much as they did with their “Know Your Role” campaign two years ago, the Southern Oregon Sports Commission is in the early phases of putting together an effort to contribute to recruitment of officials.

While details of just how the SOSC might address the problem are still being worked out, there’s no denying that the officials shortage is at emergency levels.

“Right now, we have great officials,” said SOSC member and Southern Oregon University athletic director Matt Sayre, “they’re just aging. And we don’t have the young ones replacing them. We want to focus on really making sure people understand how hard it is to be a referee, how much we need them, how much officials mean to the game and every game, and how we can’t have tournaments, we can’t have great things happen in the valley without a great group of officials to draw from.

“It starts with that outreach to the teams, to the coaches, to the players and especially to the parents to cool down and help these young people become refs.”

Whether it involves a different approach when it comes to community outreach or even more business cards than are being handed out already, commissioners know something needs to change in a hurry or else the current numbers will only get worse and there is real potential for loss of game coverage.

With a new sports season on the horizon both at the high school and youth levels, the scrambling by commissioners to try and ensure that everything gets covered is already occurring. None want to have games canceled, and the current cadre of officials are more than happy to help the next generation get into the game — whether it is a side gig or evolves into something more than that.

But at the same time, commissioners can see how things are trending and the potential impact it will have if things don’t change for the better.

“I want people to take a look at what we could be losing this basketball season because we don’t have enough officials,” Loy said. “We all have to chip in together for all kids to play all the games that they should be.”

Added Campbell: “It’s a chance to give back what somebody gave back to them growing up. It’s kind of like paying it back, and I think the older guys are very willing to help the younger guys get established and teach them, but we need a commitment from the ex-athletes that have graduated high school or college who are back in the valley. We need those guys.”

And each officials association needs them now.

Reach Danny Penza at 541-776-4469 or dpenza@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @penzatopaper

HOW CAN I MAKE A DIFFERENCE?

Contact these respective commissioners to learn more about becoming a Rogue Valley official:

Baseball

Jerry Eklund

rvumpires@aol.com

541-944-4656

Basketball

Vern Loy

vernloy@gmail.com

541-941-4045

Football

John Campbell

johnd.campbell1@gmail.com

541-538-0274

Soccer

Xavier Valdes

Xvaldes15@hotmail.com

541-261-1199

Softball

Don Alexander

archer.502001@gmail.com

541-821-8698

Volleyball

JoAnn Hartley

jghartley@ccountry.net

541-531-2514

Wrestling

Lester McFall

mcfalladventures@gmail.com

541-951-5676

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneCrater head coach Berk Brown talks with oficial Todd Bershadl during a game between North Medford and Crater this past spring.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneTravis Reese calls an out at first base during an American Legion baseball game in Grants Pass.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneFootball official Steve Westerberg avoids contact with players during a game between North Medford and South Medford at Spiegelberg Stadium this past spring.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribunePlate umpire Chris McKay calls a strike on an En Fuego player during an American Legion baseball game at US Cellular Community Park in Medford.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneFootball official Brian Bueoy watches the sideline during a game between North Medford and Roseburg game this past spring.