‘Without us, it’s just pickup’: Official shortage becomes prevalent with shifted Friday football games

Friday night was a hectic night for area football officials as those who concluded the Steamboat Springs High School football game at 6:30 p.m. then dashed to Moffat County, Hayden and Oak Creek to referee a second game beginning at 7 p.m.
Shelby Reardon/Steamboat Pilot & Today

HAYDEN — On Friday night, the Hayden Valley High School football team lined up to receive the opening kickoff against Plateau Valley and stood there for three minutes.

The players paced, antsy and chilly in the early-October cold but couldn’t start the game. There were just two officials on the field, and the other three were on their way, dashing west after finishing up the Steamboat Springs High School football game.

Originally, four area football games were scheduled for 7 p.m. Friday — Steamboat, Hayden, Soroco and Moffat County, which was impossible for the area officials association. Rusty McRight, area director and assignor for Northwest Colorado, asked Steamboat to move its game to 4 p.m., allowing the officials at the game to finish one game, then split up and hauled it to the Moffat County, Hayden and Soroco games. McRight had every available official in his area working and called upon two others from a nearby association to help.

By the time the late officials arrived, the pregame discussions and coin toss had already happened. So, all they had to do was get to their positions on the field for the game to commence.

“We put ourselves out more than the schools put themselves out. That is something we want to do. We don’t want the schools to necessarily have to forgo their seven o’clock kickoff,” McRight said. “As one coach put it, ‘This is our fan base, this is when they come out.’ We, as officials, we don’t want to deter that in any way. We try to do everything we can to keep the schools within their schedules. It just doesn’t always seem to work out that way.”

Friday’s schedule change was the only time area teams have been affected by the official shortage this year, but it’s still an issue across all sports, state and nationwide.

“We’re really lucky we have a dedicated group of officials in and around our region that work really hard to make sure that our kids have the opportunity to play games,” said Luke DeWolfe, Steamboat Springs athletic director and CHSAA board of directors president. “I really have not noticed it until this year. That doesn’t mean that the shortage wasn’t prevalent and didn’t exist. It just means our officials and assignors have gone out of their way to make sure we had officials when we needed them.”

Trent Wixom was one of the officials at the Sailors game. He got to Steamboat Springs High School around 3 p.m., and upon the game’s conclusion, shortly after 6:30 p.m., he got in his car and drove south to the Soroco High School game in Oak Creek.

“I left as soon as I could, within seconds of the game being over,” Wixom said. “I got there as they did the opening kickoff. That’s the only play I missed.”

Soroco Athletic Director Jo Parker and Hayden Athletic Director Danielle Campbell knew of the situation, as did coaches on both sides of both games, and were more than willing to wait a few minutes if needed for officials to arrive.

“We’re really blessed here in South Routt because we have a number of officials that live here,” Parker said. “Personally, I know there’s a problem out there, but it has not really affected Soroco. We’re blessed to have quite a few officials for basketball, volleyball, football, all that live in our area.

“I was grateful for the fact they were willing to ref two varsity games in one day,” she added.

Increased demand, same officials

Shawn Springer, of Craig, follows the play during a game between Rangely and Soroco high schools at Oak Creek on Friday night. He's one of 14 football officials in Northwest Colorado, many of whom had to work two games last Friday night.
Shelby Reardon/Steamboat Pilot & Today

The number of officials in football and other sports has been on the decline for years, but it’s most visible in football, since games are scheduled for Friday nights. Scheduling middle school and sub-varsity games across all sports, including lacrosse, basketball and even soccer, have also been challenging. Club sport events and tournaments across the state can affect how many officials are available locally, so athletic directors take that into account when creating schedules.

The Northwest Colorado football officials association, known as Area 16, has 14 officials this year, not including one who is injured and will return next year. A football game requires five personnel — a referee, an umpire, head linesman, linesman and back judge. McRight said 20 would be a comfortable number of local officials to cover area games, but it’s a number he hasn’t seen since coming to the Yampa Valley in 2014.

This area has been consistent, though, with about 15 officials every year McRight has been director. Unfortunately, the decrease in officials in the state and area counties has spread to Routt County. Northwest officials have been asked to cover two varsity games at West Grand, one game at Rangely, four in North Park and one in Granby, as well as four middle school games in Granby.

North Park (Walden) and Baggs, Wyoming, are looking to be included in the Northwest Colorado region, as well.

“Statewide, (officials membership) has dropped in the hundreds,” McRight said. “When I first came to Colorado in 2014 from Texas, you didn’t have this problem. It has slowly gotten to the point where it makes it more challenging for officials to get to games.”

The increasing demand on officials isn’t helping make an already tough job more appealing. Officials get paid $63.46 per varsity game and 40 cents per mile for travel. They generally carpool when possible, since schools are required to pay for two cars, but many pay for more.

The men in the white-and-black stripes are never the most adored on the field either, drawing criticism from players, coaches and fans on a nightly basis.

“For veteran officials, it’s just part of the game,” McRight said.

McRight and training official Jim Beers work to slowly introduce new officials to the job, starting them at middle school games, then sub-varsity and varsity when they have a full understanding of the rules and have developed a thick skin.

Friday early evening lights

Shawn Springer, of Craig, follows the play during a game between Rangely and Soroco high schools at Oak Creek on Friday night. He's one of 14 football officials in Northwest Colorado, many of whom had to work two games last Friday night.
Shelby Reardon/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Friday early evening lights doesn’t have the same ring to it but could be the reality if the number of officials keep decreasing. The limited number of referees could force teams to play Thursday nights, Saturdays or other odd times to spread out the officials.

Existing officials are an aging group, as well, so the shortage will only worsen as people decide to retire.

Recruiting more referees is the obvious solution, but it isn’t that easy.

The local association, as well as the Colorado Football Official Association, work to find people interested in becoming an official. Most of the time, officials just use word of mouth to find people who want to join the association.

Beers, the training official in Area 16, has found that targeting college intramural leagues is a great way to find people interested in refereeing at the next level.

Beers recently ended his term as the statewide head of the recruiting retention committee, a group of basketball referees. He’s still part of the committee, though, which works on new ways of recruiting new officials and retaining current officials.

“Without us, it’s just pickup,” Beers said. “That’s why we’re trying to lean a little bit more on coaches and athletic directors to help.”

Once a recruit is interested, Beers is in charge of training, although most of his work is with existing members looking to expand their skill sets.

For an official looking to call a playoff game, they have to take an additional test on top of their yearly mechanics test and rules test. For those seeking to call a semi-final or finals game, they have to be evaluated and certified “gold.” There are 10 Northwest officials who can call a playoff game, and five considered “gold” officials.

Providing quality officiating is important to McRight, who avoids putting mediocre or new officials on a varsity game, even with the shortage.

“It wouldn’t be fair to the kids — to them it’s the Super Bowl,” McRight said. “You want to give them your best on the field just like the coach expects his players to give their best. We sincerely try to do that each and every week.”

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