Athletic directors struggle to get kids – and officials – to games


October 20, 2021

Scott Swanson

If you're Dan Tow, Sweet Home's new athletic director, putting together a sports schedule is, well, a crap shoot.

He's not alone. In addition to juggling COVID-19 requirements and restrictions, just about every high school in Oregon is struggling with two other issues: finding officials and getting kids to games.

"Transportation is a big issue right now," Tow said. "We're probably more lucky here than a lot of schools."

Sisters' girls soccer team, for instance, played at Sweet Home Thursday, Oct. 14.

The Outlaws rolled into town on time, but not on a bus.

"Sisters arrived in a bunch of cars," Tow said. "They are in real bad shape. They have a JV and varsity team. I don't know how many cars pulled into parking lot, all at once. It was probably about 10."

Tow said he has a soccer game scheduled later this season "that I don't have a driver for. We have to play it."

Down the road in Lebanon, Warriors Athletic Director Kraig Hoene said he has similar issues.

"It is what it is," he said, explaining that extra drivers aren't available to drive athletic buses before the regular routes are handled. "We can't afford to take a bus driver off a route to deliver athletes because we don't have enough. Everybody's facing it.

"Woodburn (Lebanon's boys soccer opponent on Oct. 21) can't get a bus out of town until 4:30. Then you have a horrible time with I-5 traffic. Hopefully, they'll get here, get the kids games."

The Woodburn game against the Warriors is scheduled for 8 p.m.

"We'll get home when we get home," Hoene said.

Then, when they get the kids to the game, there's another big challenge: finding officials.

"You have to have certified officials," Tow said. "You can't just pull somebody out of the stands."

The OSAA requires certified officials in six team sports (football, volleyball, basketball, soccer, baseball and softball) and in wrestling. Swimming, dance, cheer, tennis and cross-country/track and field use officials with other certifications.

Sweet Home played football at Newport on Oct. 2, a Saturday, because the Cubs couldn't get officials on Friday night. The Huskies played at North Eugene Oct. 14, a Thursday, because the Oregon Ducks had a home game the following night and many local high school officials also work the college games.

"When the Ducks or Beavers play, they use a lot of refs for things like the chain gang, people like that," Tow said. "They might use eight officials from the Eugene area. (North Eugene) just couldn't do it."

Everybody's struggling, officials say.

"We're barely on the edge to cover the games we've been assigned," said Jack Folliard, executive director of the Oregon Athletic Officials Association. "We have a lot of cooperating athletic directors changing dates, times."

Those involved in high school athletics say there's been a gradual decline in athletic official numbers in recent years, but the arrival of COVID, with all its complications, sparked a precipitous drop-off.

Folliard said the numbers of officials, "all over the country, have been dropping like crazy."

"This isn't just Oregon," he said.

Dave Brooks, commissioner of the Mid-Valley Soccer Referees Association, which serves schools from Central Linn to Corvallis to Dallas to Sweet Home, said his roster of soccer officials is "conservatively" down 40 percent from the fall of 2019, the last full season.

"In soccer I am desperately trying to deal with all the middle school requests," Brooks said, noting that he was in the process of raising pay for middle school games from $37.50 to $42.50 "to make them more attractive" to officials who otherwise would opt for higher-paying high school contests.

"I am desperately trying to cover these last few Tuesdays and Thursdays," he said. "Everybody wants to play on the same day. I have two crews working three different contests each on the same day.

"If I don't kill my officials, we'll be ready for the playoffs," he said. "It's near impossible."

Tow said part of the problem is that younger people aren't stepping up.

"A lot of young people haven't been signing up to become officials," he said. "Some of the officials, guys and gals, are getting older. They're retiring and there's not as many young people to replace them."

Folliard said the pandemic made the situation worse – "we're way down," as existing officials stepped away when games weren't happening, and now the vaccination requirements are taking their toll "because Salem said every official has to be vaccinated or can't go on campus."

Some districts, he said, are allowing exemptions, "but many aren't."

Athletic officials, he said, are independent contractors who work with a local officials association, which assigns them to competitions.

"Many of them have made the personal choice and decided not to get vaccinated," Folliard said, noting that he didn't have numbers because Monday, Oct. 18, was the cut-off date for submission of proof of vaccination or exemption forms.

Brooks said Monday he had not lost any soccer refs over vaccinations, but he had some who opted not to participate because they are taking care of older parents with health issues and didn't want to run the risk of exposure.

Basketball, he said, appears even bleaker. He's already lost officials who refuse to be vaccinated.

"It may be even more dire," he said.

Those are just new problems, though. The number of athletic officials had been dropping for years, and their average age has been increasing.

"Our average age is 50," Folliard said of Oregon's officials. "These are not young guys. Trying to work two soccer games or two football tames in a day is pretty tough. Not to mention getting off work (to officiate).

"It's kind of a big problem."

Then there's the problem of abuse from the crowd.

Folliard and others acknowledged that it's "one of the boxes they check" when officials announce they're quitting. And it's also a reason why some youth sports officials won't move up to the high school level, he said.

"There's no question that fan behavior is not good," he said. "Athletic directors do a pretty good job of trying to control the crowd, particularly in indoor sports like basketball and volleyball.

"Even though OSAA doesn't cover sports below the high school level, we lose some (potential officials) that won't even go to high school because they had a bad experience."

Being an official requires some ability to put up with crowd noise, he said.

The OSAA is taking steps to encourage members of the public to consider getting involved in officiating. The organization recently issued a video that highlights some veteran officials discussing their experiences and why they like officiating, viewable at

Chase Lopez, who captained Sweet Home's boys soccer team last spring during its COVID season, is reffing this fall.

He actually started with the Boys & Girls Club, where he's umpired baseball and softball for "six or seven years" and then moved into basketball.

"I've been doing it since I was a kid," said Lopez, who graduated in June and is attending Linn-Benton Community College.

He actually had just gotten certified as a soccer coach when he received an email from Dave Brooks, commissioner of the Mid-Valley Soccer Referees Association.

"They asked me if I wanted to be a ref," Lopez said.

Lopez said he's enjoyed it and crowds have treated him well, so far.

"A lot of them have been nice about it," he said, adding that umpiring baseball can be more challenging. "Everybody thinks they know everything.

"I'm doing it for a job, but it's cool to learn more about the game," Lopez said, adding that his increased understanding of the rules could benefit him when he plays in Corvallis and Eugene rec leagues.

He said he's officiated two games a day and as many as three in a week as he gets started.

Tow said a lot of his officials work multiple games a week, which actually adds up significantly, cash-wise.

According to the OSAA website,, pay ranges from $40 to $60 per game, depending on the sport and level, and may differ in payment frequency and deductions by association.

"Last night we played two games and those refs did both games," he said. "They probably made a hundred-and-some dollars. And they got paid for mileage. Some of them, by the end of the month, are making a decent chunk of money.

"We had a ref the other night for football who was doing Pop Warner games the next day. He was doing 14 games in one week. In that week alone, he probably made over $1,000."

It's a good job for ex-athletes, particularly those in college, he added.

"We had a kid here from OSU doing soccer. He loved soccer and he wasn't even back in classes yet, so he was reffing as many games as he could. For kids at OSU or University of Oregon, there are a lot of schools close by, in Albany or Corvallis, or in Eugene. It helps pay for his college. It's not a bad gig for a kid who has a car and who likes sports."

OSAA provides training in rules clinics for local associations, which are required to send representatives to attend if officials want to participate in state playoff competitions.

Scott Swanson

Chase Lopez patrols the sideline during a Sweet Home boys soccer game. He started refereeing games midway through this season, in response to a recruiting email from the local Referee Association commissioner.

Folliard said he's often approached during sports seasons by people interested in officiating, but he said that conversation needs to happen before a season begins.

"We get a lot of interest when the season starts, but that's kind of too late for a new official. They need to start training a month ahead of time. People who want to do football now, during the season, it's too late."

Lopez did start a little later, but it's worked out and, Brooks said, Lopez has saved the day already on a number of occasions.

He was on the pitch by mid-season and has officiated "10 or 12" games thus far, mostly as a line judge.

"I've been in the middle of the field once. It was pretty fun, but you have to know everything."

"I do it with a lot of old people."

Learn about what it takes to be an official:

Watch the video at:


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