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As sports officials shortage persists, Centre County schools, PIAA look for creative solutions

The spring sports season has started in Centre County, and while faces and positions on local teams have changed, a persistent problem has not.

Centre County schools, like others across Pennsylvania, continue to face a shortage of officials, a problem that affects when and where high school sports are played, among other things.

In 2015, the state legislature began requiring high school sports officials to go through clearances, not unlike those teachers go through, in order to officiate games through the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association. Since then, the number of officials across the state has been on the decline.

“Many officials at that time either didn’t want to go through the process, some were challenged with technology, others didn’t want to pay (for the clearances),” Patrick Gebhart, an associate executive director with PIAA, said.

COVID-19 and an aging population of sports officials threw a wrench into youth sports in Pennsylvania. While games are still being played in most sports despite scheduling issues, the situation will only get worse if the trend continues.

Solutions are already being implemented to fix the small pool of officials in the state, but reversing a trend that’s taken place for years could create for a tough task.

Umpire Dave Urbanick during the Tyrone at Bellefonte baseball game on Monday, March 25, 2024 at Governor’s Park.
Umpire Dave Urbanick during the Tyrone at Bellefonte baseball game on Monday, March 25, 2024 at Governor’s Park.

Declining numbers

Jerry Zollars, who now holds the responsibility within the local PIAA chapter to assign umpires to high school baseball games, moved to Pennsylvania about a decade ago. Before then, he umpired in Ohio, where he said there were more officials than were needed.

Now, Zollars is one of many in Pennsylvania dealing with the repercussions of an officials shortage. Between last spring baseball season and the current season, Zollars said he gained three new umpires but lost six, leaving Centre County high school baseball games with a total of 14.

According to Zollars, that number used to be between 20-25. Each umpire now has more games to cover and each game has fewer of them.

Eric Bernier, the local PIAA softball assignor who’s been with the chapter for 22 years, said Centre County’s biggest challenge has been replacing older officials that retired.

“We’re just not attracting younger officials to come in and take their place,” Bernier said. “From what I’ve seen, what’s happening here mostly follows the pattern nationally.”

There’s still enough officials, especially in Centre County, to get each game covered with the minimum amount required, but the fewer assigned to each game — for example, five football referees instead of the usual seven — means the likelier it is that a call is missed.

As the numbers trend downward, rescheduling games due to weather is also becoming more difficult.

“We have dates where we actually have to tell (athletic directors) we can’t take any more games,” Bernier said. “I‘m afraid what we’re going to see here as soon as next year, is asking schools to move games from days even before the season starts.”

As the problem grows, those already in the field are aware that there’s multiple factors holding back interest in the job.

Umpire Dave Urbanick during the Tyrone at Bellefonte baseball game on Monday, March 25, 2024 at Governor’s Park.
Umpire Dave Urbanick during the Tyrone at Bellefonte baseball game on Monday, March 25, 2024 at Governor’s Park.

‘The love of the game’

The initial process to become a PIAA official takes both a time and financial commitment.

According to the PIAA website, unless one is applying to be a junior official (16 and 17 year olds), there’s a $40 application fee to take the test for their chosen sport. Should that be completed, Gebhart said the aforementioned state clearances cost around $60.

Depending on the sport, one would have to purchase more equipment than others to officiate; for example, a baseball or softball umpire requires a mask, chest protector, shin guards, shoes and potentially more.

“There’s a bit of an upfront investment needed for those particular sports,” Bernier said.

On top of the financial burden, social media and the internet have resulted in more people seeing negative interactions between officials and either fans or coaches.

It’s not hard to find a referee that’s dealt with verbal, or even physical, abuse from spectators or someone involved in the game. Naturally, officials are put in a spot where they’re the person to be angry at after a loss or missed call.

It takes a certain set of people skills for you to be able to work in that environment,” Bernier said.

While Bernier said treatment of officials isn’t an issue in Centre County, where there’s a strong-knit community of coaches and fans, it’s still a factor in why people choose not to enter the profession.

Then there’s the travel and time commitment, which is also holding back interest from potential officials.

“For spring sports, it’s always been an issue of who can get off work,” Doug Dyke, Bald Eagle Area High School’s athletic director, said.

One of the best ways to offset the job’s drawbacks is having a passion for sports, which is a key in recruiting.

“That’s what drew me to it, is the love of the game,” Bernier said.

Moving forward

Officiating may have its challenges, but steps are being taken throughout Centre County and Pennsylvania to address them.

Pay for local officials has increased in recent years. Zollars said that while it used to be difficult to convince schools to raise their pay per game for an official, most of them have done so recently. For example, he said pay for a JV game has been bumped up from around $50 to $75.

“We thought that schools were underpaying for what you had to do,” Zollars said. “Hopefully, we’re trying to sell new officials to come in and get trained and take the PIAA test, to tell them, ‘Hey, you (got) pretty good pay today.”

Encouraging and educating fans, coaches and referees to avoid negative behavior is another step. If there’s fewer bad examples of treatment toward officials, more young people could show interest.

“If we have a coach berate the two or three officials working the contest, none of the students on either one of those benches are ever going to become an official,” Gebhart said.

PIAA’s Junior Officials program, which can be joined on its website, now allows younger high school students to officiate youth games so they can gain experience in the profession and decide earlier on if it’s a career they’re interested in pursuing.

At State College Area High School, athletic director Chris Weakland is leading an initiative to create a course focused on being PIAA officiating that would go hand-in-hand with the Junior Officials program. The curriculum would go over all the basics of the officiating profession: people skills, rules and management of the games, managing money, etc.

“(That way) there’s no barrier of time, space or resources within the students for them to become an official,” Weakland said.

While in-school curriculum is still in the early stages, there’s measures being taken throughout Pennsylvania to grow interest in sports officiating. As the issue becomes more dire, the need to address has as well.

While Gebhart said the total number of officials in the state has been slowly rising since September 2022, the landscape of Pennsylvania high school sports is still being affected by the lack of available officials. If efforts to recruit and make the job more appealing continue to prove successful, it can be handled before bigger changes are necessary.

“We’re just trying to be proactive on the front end of it,” Weakland said. “Hopefully in a couple, four or five years, we’re going to see that needle being tilted back into a more manageable number, where we won’t be as desperate for those officials.”