‘When we get 10 new ones, we lose 25 veterans’: more new young referees needed for Wisconsin youth sports

DANE COUNTY, Wis.- With the school year just a couple of weeks away, youth sports will also kickoff, calling referees back into play. But referee associations say the number of officials coming in isn’t keeping up with the number of refs getting out of the game. 

“One of our goals, and I think any association that’s out there, we’re all trying to get new young officials involved,” said Dave Jameson who is president of the Southern Wisconsin Officials Association (SWOA) and Assistant Athletic Director at Oregon High School.  

According to Jameson, no games for any sports in the area have had to be moved or canceled this year, thanks to a good base number of officials.  

“Probably close to 1000 officials in this area throughout the sports,” he said.  

Unfortunately, some Freshman and Junior Varsity games last year were lost, and Jameson said if they can’t hang on to young refs longer, it could be a possibility again. 

“There’s a few new ones, which is great — but when we get 10 new ones, we lose 25 veterans,” said Jameson.  

He said what they really need is younger people to commit to a few years.

“Now it’s hard. I could talk to the kids here that are seniors and tell them that when they head off to college, look around in that area and find out who it is, work youth football, youth basketball, for a kid in college it’s nice extra cash,” Jameson began, “to talk to them and try to tell them to get interested in it, ‘they would be, but’. There’s so many other things these kids do — a lot of them head to work, they head to school then to work kind of thing.”  

Many young people are busy or unwilling to devote what can be multiple nights a week to a basketball game – for little pay.

“You’re not getting rich by doing it by any means, and I think we’re dealing with a little different age group now if that’s the right way to put it,” Jameson said.  

For the regular seasons, he said schools budget how much to pay game officials. Different conferences reimburse schools for tournaments. “A lot of the conferences around here now, we’ve raised our rates a little bit, finally,” he said. “Is it where it should be? It’s not even close.”  

Still, he said there are still a handful with a love for the game that are getting involved.  

“If you can get 2 or 3 and you can break that through a little bit and you can keep them, it’s a victory, which, [it’s] not a big victory, but it’s a victory if you can get a few of them to stay,” Jameson said.   

According to Joel Zimba, Athletic Director at Verona Area High School, schools are working on attracting young prospects before they go off to college.  

“To try to get our students our involved whether they be seniors or underclassmen, just getting them excited about wanting to be officials,” Zimba said.  

But younger refs also lose interest for a much darker reason.

“You can watch videos of youth sports coaches getting in fights and they’re hitting officials and all that kind of stuff,” said Jameson.  “I think it’s a huge hurdle right now, I think it’s just hard for someone that’s interested that’s young they see that stuff and I think it turns them off.”

It’s a penalty Zimba wants to make sure never happens at their games. 

“We hear a lot about officials that quit just because of the experience that they have when they’re at the event, so parents have to do their part to try and keep officials around,” he said.  

But after the state lost 1,600 officials during the pandemic, Jameson said things are in a better place. “Right now I think we’re on some more stable ground when it comes to officials for definitely the varsity sports,” he said.  

Referees get their license from the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association, and Jameson says those in high school can join without paying any fees until they get out.