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Years-long Montana referee shortage getting worse as cancellations loom

Referee shortage
Posted at 10:24 AM, Sep 13, 2022

BILLINGS — It may be the most thankless job in America: a high school sports referee.

The best ones go completely unnoticed. The ones deemed below average? Spectators have no problem seeing those stripes.

"We get a ton of comments from parents," said Sarah Schroefel, a referee in the Montana Officials Association Billings pool.

That’s the problem: parents may not spot those stripes soon because they won’t be there, driven to quit from fan abuse. And if they’re gone, the games will be too.

"We’re treading water pretty hard," said Jay Lemelin, the MOA regional director of the Billings pool.

Lemelin has been reffing games for 38 years, so he’s seen - and heard - it all.

"Just the abuse," he said. "We absolutely understand that parents are there for children, but we’re looking for some grace there."

High school referees watch during player introductions before a boys basketball game between Missoula Big Sky and Helena Capital.

Fan abuse isn't a new problem. The MHSA penned an op-ed in February 2019 telling fans to treat referees with more respect. Lemelin says fan abuse is one of two reasons why 75 percent of referees leave the job within three years, and that leads into the second reason.

"The time commitment," Lemelin said. "We know you went Tuesday. Can you go again Thursday? What about Friday? What’s your Saturday look like?”

"Right now, I could work as many games as I wanted to," Schroefel said, "which has its pros and its cons."

Schroefel is five years into her basketball reffing career, so statistics say she’s likely in it for the long haul. It helps that she’s a hoops junkie.

"I played basketball my whole life and really wanted to give back," she said. "Most of us work full-time jobs somewhere else. We do this because we’re passionate and love to be involved, but definitely after last year, I heard a lot of people say they were drained from having to do so many games."

MHSA officials get paid $48 per sub varsity game and $70 per varsity game, which will go up to $75 next year. If Billings refs travel outside the Magic City to smaller communities, they get paid the IRS mileage rate as well as 12 cents a mile per diem. So four games a week can mean a couple hundred dollars, but a lot of time.

"Some of the smaller communities' pools are becoming smaller, so then we’re extending and picking up schools we never did before," Lemelin said. "There used to be competition between the pools in the Billings area to take games, but right now, if one of the other pools takes some games from the Billings area, we feel relief."

Referee pay

The biggest stress this year has been in soccer. Billings School District 2 Activities Director Mark Wahl says there are 21 soccer officials in Billings to cover 23 MHSA teams, with at least three officials needed for each match. The shortage has caused several JV games to be canceled, and there have been multiple rescheduled events every single week.

The silver lining to all this? Schroefel said anyone with a passion for the game - like her - can hit the ground running.

"It's a great time for younger officials to get in, because you do have an opportunity to ref higher-level games and more competitive games sooner," she said.

"We need to make volunteers, not hostages," Lemelin concluded. "People who are drug to a meeting, it’s probably not going to work out. But if you have any interest at all, we’ll do what we can to help."

It worked for at least one person.

"I’ve really loved it," Schroefel said. "There’s been challenges for sure, but it’s a great feeling to be an official."

To sign up, go to the MHSA website. You'll need to pay $75 in dues, take an open-book test, and complete a concussion awareness course.