National youth referee shortage grips Northeast Ohio communities

by Martin McConnell

As pandemic restrictions have loosened, youth sports have ramped back up to full schedules and communities across the country are experiencing a serious refereeing shortage.

According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, the United States has lost about 50,000 referees and umpires since the 2018-19 season. Both Independence and Broadview Heights have felt the effects of the shortage in their communities.

“It’s a major problem everywhere,” said Independence athletic program director Dmitri Dmitruk. “For the last 20, 25 years, we’ve had a group of umpires take care of our stuff for little league. … They’re getting burnt out. It’s killing us.”

Dmitruk noted that even though Independence has raised their refereeing pay rates, finding new people for the staff has become difficult. In addition to burnout, fan behavior has become a problem for new officials.

“You have 20 and 30-year-olds that are trying to do this. They’re in their first game, they’re getting screamed at,” Dmitruk said. “That’s why you don’t have that young generation, and then it trickles down to youth sports.”

This trickle-down effect has made Dmitruk worried for what the future of youth sports could look like. Fan behavior has created a climate of hostility that referees simply do not want to deal with for the pay rates they receive.

“We’re fighting the other cities,” Dmitruk said. “Last year we paid $45 [a game]. Now we’re paying $50, $55, and then they want to raise it. … We can’t keep up.”

Broadview Heights Parks and Athletic Manager Gary Diehl has also been affected by the shortage, and noted that he has heard more of the same from other communities around Ohio.

“You’re probably going to get the same story from everybody,” Diehl said. “It’s really, really hard to find referees, much less good referees.”

Diehl noted that baseball and soccer have been hit the hardest. Officials in these sports also seem to be the most affected by harsh fan behavior.

“If you’re 14 years old and you have an adult yelling at you, are you really going to stand up to them and tell them to shut up and sit down?” Diehl said. “You’re a 14-year-old kid. That being said, I tell my referees they have every right to do that.”

Multiple games in Broadview Heights across all sports are canceled each weekend because of the referee shortage. If the games are not canceled, youth coaches have to double as referees and umpires during the game.

The consensus has been that the referee shortage is a product of fan behavior at games getting out of control. Youth sports directors around the country have made an attempt to mediate fan behavior on behalf of the officials, and northeast Ohio communities are no different.

“Yelling at them is not going to make a difference,” Diehl said. “It’s just going to make them mad, or hurt their feelings. We’ve had incidents where we’ve had referees crying.” ∞