Last year, the Northern Virginia Football Officials organization thought it had found a way to reach people who might be interested in refereeing high school games. President Dennis Hall pitched his message at 7:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning community service radio show broadcast on WTEM.
Hall did not receive the response he expected.
"We got nothing," he recalls. "We didn't hit the right buttons. We didn't hit the right pitches."
The number of officials has declined at a time when the number of students--boys and girls--playing high school sports has grown rapidly. More games are being added, often earlier in the afternoon, while fewer adults have time left in their hectic schedules to make a commitment to refereeing. Adding to the shortage is the high cost of liability insurance for student-athletes who officiate some sports.
Organizations of officials from around the Washington region, which contract with area schools to staff games, have had to be more creative in attracting and retaining referees. Some groups troll the hallways of universities, aggressively luring students who have officiated intramural games. Other organizations have boosted their ad campaigns, which include Internet Web sites and commercials on local cable channels.
While few games have had to be canceled, some officials say the shortage eventually could affect how games are called because officials across the board are being asked to referee more contests or work games by themselves that usually take two or three referees.
"It seems to always be in a state of crisis," said Ned Sparks, executive director of the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association, which has 3,000 certified officials. "It's one of those things where we always look like we're on the edge."
Officials are assigned to high school games in all sports through a hodgepodge of regional non-profit organizations that help train and certify them. While some officials will choose only to work in their county, the majority of the 9,500 registered officials in the region work games throughout the metropolitan area.
The Washington area is not suffering alone. Almost everyone interviewed for this story--state athletic associations, official assignors, officials and coaches--said the lack of officials is a national problem made worse in recent years. A robust U.S. economy means fewer people need the extra income.
"Back in the old days, you could take off from work," said Dan Stevens, who has worked as an official for 28 years and assigns officials for Anne Arundel County high school athletics through the Champion Officials Group. "What kind of person today can get away from work for an early afternoon game?"
Many organizations, such as the Cardinal Basketball Officials Association, have given seminars at area high schools in hopes of generating interest among athletes and other students who may need the money. It is tougher for younger people to be officials because of the cost of insurance coverage, the lack of experience and the demands of school.
The CBOA, which is based in Northern Virginia and provides 260 officials to cover basketball games for high schools in the area, is lobbying the state agencies that oversee high school athletics to provide insurance coverage to 16- and 17-year-olds who could referee youth games.
Even if the state grants such an approval, officials say it's still difficult to get younger people involved. All officials are required to complete training programs that in some cases can include three months of classroom work, the passing of state certification exams and on-field experience.
The commitment can be daunting, said Joyce Sisson, the assignor for the Cardinal group. "People are going in a lot of different directions," she said. "Some people really dedicate themselves. I have a lot of people who save up their vacation time for the winter so that they can officiate games."
Leroy Green, a former printer for the U.S. Department of Interior, is in his first year of officiating football. He is part of a new breed of recruits that local officials organizations have targeted to help revive the dwindling number of referees. So what makes Green an ideal candidate to be an official? He has the time and doesn't do it for the money. He's a self-professed football junkie who has officiated touch football games for the D.C. Recreation Department.
"Once they found out I was retired and had the time, they just threw games at me," said Green, 58, who has worked more than a half-dozen games since the first weekend in September.
The officials who work football in Maryland, Virginia and the District are paid as much as $54 for a varsity game and $37 for a junior varsity contest. By comparison, officials can get paid more for less-popular sports, such as field hockey and lacrosse. Field hockey referees for suburban and independent schools in the region make $50 per varsity game.
"Money has always been a problem," said Stevens, of Champion Officials Group. In addition to the training, he noted that officials are required to buy their own uniforms, which can cost $150.
Sometimes, even the oldest marketing efforts to entice officials still work. Bradley Hewick is a rookie football official this season and a member of the Washington District Football Officials. The owner of two insurance companies in Lanham and Great Mills took the plunge at the urging of a neighbor who is a longtime official.
Through officiating football, Hewick maintains a relationship with a sport that began when he was a toddler. He said his work schedule allows him enough flexibility to get away from the office for games, and his skills at selling insurance and working with customers filing claims make it easier to defuse contentious situations that might erupt among coaches, players and fans.
"I wish I had done it earlier," said Hewick, 36. "It has been fun, invigorating and challenging."
Many leagues are forced to rush inexperienced referees into varsity competition before they're ready. In other cases, games are being scheduled so that one crew can handle back-to-back contests, a common practice for some sports.
The coaches for middle school teams playing field hockey and lacrosse often have to officiate games because there are not enough officials available, said Elaine Knobloch, who assigns referees for those sports for the more than 100 schools in the region.
"I'd like to have more," she said. "Some days are more trouble than others. An official can literally work every day, except for Sunday, if they wanted to."
The lack of officials, said W.T. Woodson field hockey coach Andy Muir, makes it difficult to develop a consistent practice schedule. Unlike football, where games are usually played Friday and Saturday nights, field hockey games are scheduled whenever officials are available. Muir said the Cavaliers are still trying to reschedule a junior varsity game rained out last week. A tentative date was scrapped because a referee was not available.
"The officials basically have control over when we get to play," Muir said. "When new officials come along, they're thrown into the fire and expected to perform straight away. Because so many games are so close, an inexperienced call can make the difference between a win and a loss."
Last week, because the Jewish holiday Rosh Hashanah fell on a Saturday, Alan Ferraro, an assignor for the WDFO, needed to find 122 referees for Thursday games with starting times of 3 and 4 p.m.
"We were fortunate that we were just barely able to cover them," Ferraro said.
Stevens had to work a junior varsity game so that he could release an official to fill in for a varsity game in the Southern Maryland Athletic Conference.
"Sooner or later, somebody is not going to be able to cover," he said. "I don't know anybody who has an official sitting at home."
What an Official Earns
Here are a few examples of what you can make officiating games in the Washington area. The per-game fee is based on a rate determined by the state agencies overseeing high school athletics and the official organizations that supply referees for games. The fee can vary depending on the sport and the county where the games are played.
Football officials who referee games in the District, Maryland and Virginia receive per game fees of $54 for varsity, $37 for junior varsity and $35 for freshmen.
Soccer officials in the region receive $40 for junior varsity and $50 for varsity games.
Volleyball officials in Maryland and Virginia receive $35 for freshmen, $35 for junior varsity and $45 for varsity games.
Basketball officials who work Northern Virginia games receive $50 each for varsity, $35 for junior varsity and $33 for freshmen games. In the District, officials receive $40 for boys varsity games, $48 for girls. JV boys and girls refs get $40. In Maryland, it's $40 to $50 for boys and girls varsity, and $30 to $40 for junior varsity games.
Area field hockey officials make $50 for varsity, $40 for junior varsity and $35 for middle school games.
Lacrosse officials make $60 for varsity games, $50 for junior varsity and $40 for middle school games.