(Athletics Division)

Recruiting new officials becomes never-ending effort

Sunday, May 13, 2007
Copyright (c) 2007 Republican-American

Some 15 years ago, baseball umpire Arnie Mann saw a trend at a Greater New Haven board meeting that he couldn't ignore.

"I started to look around the meeting room and there were a lot of bald heads and white hair," Mann recalled. "I knew we would be in trouble when they retired and we wouldn't have replacements."

At the time, there were 50 just members on the New Haven board.

Sensing a trend, Mann began what is now a common task among state high school officials organizations -- an all-out recruiting mission to secure the future. Faced with declining numbers of officials and expanding school athletic programs, the quest to add and retain members consumes nearly every officials board.

While some sports have enough officials to keep the games going, other sports are in more dire straits when it comes to qualified individuals. The struggle to recruit new members to a part-time job that offers difficult hours (mid-afternoon, evening and weekends), plus the guarantee of lots of yelling (from coaches and parents) never ends.

Mann is lucky in one respect since he was able to add 40 new umpires this year, increasing his total to 230. To get that group he targeted family members of existing umpires or former coaches who needed a change of pace from coaching, but still wanted to be involved in the game.

He contacted people who had retired from their full-time jobs and have afternoons free, or former high school athletes now in college but not playing competitively.

"I'm (always) looking for people who have a love for the game and a love of working with kids," said Mann.

Seymour's Ray Faustich, an assigning commissioner and rules interpreter for the Fairfield County baseball board, said his group also has made a surge in attracting more members. Over the past five years, Fairfield has added 100 new umpires, thanks in part to conducting many clinics at the local youth baseball levels to get them acclimated.

"Most stay with us for the long-term," Faustich said.

Other sports are not as lucky keeping officials on board. Changes in full-time jobs or lifestyle issues often force individuals to give up their officiating jobs, creating a situation that one longtime soccer official calls akin to "treading water". They add some people, lose some people and never really increase their membership.

This ongoing concern has attracted the attention of the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference, the state high school sports governing body, in recent years. The CIAC has aided in the recruiting effort by forming an advisory officials board to help local organizations on a variety of issues, including recruiting prospective members.

Recently, the CIAC put together a brochure, called "Get In the Game," which can be downloaded from the CIAC's web site.

"It's a way of rallying the troops together," said retired Notre Dame of West Haven athletic director Joe Tonelli, now the director of the CIAC Officials Association. The advisory board will meet Tuesday to talk about a variety of subjects, including recruiting of new members.

"Up until the last year or two, officials groups had their own team, but now they are a part of our team," Tonelli said. "It has helped to foster mutual respect among officials, coaches and member schools. It's in its infancy, but we are all working together to serve the best interests of officials and the best interest of high school sports in the state."

The association maintains a database that has more than 3,000 state officials listed, and meets to discuss issues of importance to sports officials such as insurance, rules interpretation, sportsmanship and -- most importantly -- recruiting.

Facing more schools, more teams and more athletes every year, the men and women who officiate the games are constantly looking for reinforcements.

Here is the state of high school officiating in several sports around Connecticut:

Volleyball: State coordinator Barbara Startup has noticed a positive trend.

"At this point, we are in pretty good shape and do have enough (officials)," said Startup. "It used to be mostly women officiating volleyball, but now it seems we have a large increase in the number of men (62 percent)."

Wrestling: Head official Brian Manzi also feels he has enough members, but adds "We are always looking for more. What we always need are more officials who are capable of working the highest levels. Currently, most new officials come from former wrestlers or coaches who want to stay involved in the sport."

Swimming: The Western Connecticut Swim Officials Association, which services schools in Greater Waterbury and the Naugatuck Valley League, has a roster of 43 officials and combats a potential shortage by having officials do two meets in one day.

Girls lacrosse: Retaining officials they have recruited is a major issue for state girls lacrosse coordinator Patti Klecha-Porter.

"We have a shortage of umpires at all levels, college high schools, thirds and youth," said Klecha-Porter. "It's ongoing every year. They move, get a new job or have family obligations. Also, due to the time of games, their employment may not allow the flexibility to umpire."

At one time, Klecha-Porter estimated there were 80-percent female umpires, but in recent years those numbers have slipped considerably. There are currently 59 women and 32 men on her board.

"As chair of CWLOA (Connecticut Women's Lacrosse Officials Association), I am concerned," Klecha-Porter said.

Boys lacrosse: There is also a shortage in boys lacrosse, according to David Leete, one of 17 members of the CIAC officials Advisory panel.

"We are always looking for more," said Leete, who added 20 newcomers this spring, his best increase ever. "Unfortunately, it takes a few years of games to gain varsity experience. We especially need officials on the eastern coast toward Rhode Island."

Football: In this sport the recruitment of officials is an annual concern, says Barry F. Fowler, a Waterbury resident and past president of the Colonial Football Officials Association, which services the South-West Conference (of which Pomperaug High is a member).

"We may have been able to recruit five new officials annually, but within two years we're lucky to have kept one or two of them," said Fowler. "Many do not understand the commitment of time requited to travel to meetings, spending time studying rules, and be generally prepared to officiate."

Soccer: Many sports, like lacrosse and soccer, offer clinics to bring knowledge to prospective newcomers. Attracting soccer officials is a daunting task, noted Wolcott's Joe DelBuono, the commissioner and assigner of the Western Connecticut Soccer Officials Association.

"We were as high as 123 members six years ago, and we may add 12 to 14, but we will also have attrition and lose half new and some old," said DelBuono.

The need is immense considering the Western Connecticut board services 61 schools for boys and girls soccer. That translates into close to 2,000 games a year to cover, compared with around 1,700 four years ago.

"It's like treading water and getting nowhere. If someone wants to join us, I can give them games eight days a week," noted DelBuono, "because there are enough games out there."

In soccer, new members are given nonvarsity games for at least the first two years. Even though it is in the spring, DelBuono is already working on assigning a schedule for the fall.

Basketball: At the CIAC basketball finals in March, tables were set up with hopes of attracting people interested in taking up basketball officiating, according to Hank Luzzi, the secretary-treasurer of the New Haven District board, which serves the Naugatuck Valley League.

"We're always climbing to the top of the hill, but can never actually get to it," said Luzzi, who has a member list of 223. "Every year we average about 25 newcomers, but we always lose some."