Over the past several years officiating pools around the state of Montana have dwindled. It’s an unfortunate trend that could have a major impact this school year.
Mike Bell, a referee for the Montana Officials Association and regional director for the Gallatin Valley and the surrounding area, said officials are needed for every sport. While he noted the local football pool should be able to get by this fall, there is a significant shortage looming for basketball.
The number of officials had been in the 80’s, Bell said, but it dipped into the 70’s a year ago. He expects that number to drop into the 60’s this winter.
“We normally like to cover all the high schools in our area plus some junior high in the valley. I don’t know if we can cover them now,” Bell said. “When we can’t cover it then it’s people in the stands who are going to come down and do it.”
If that’s the case, then why not get paid for it and give back to your community?
For most the answer is easy. The vitriol from parents and fans isn’t worth the heartache.
But Bell noted the positives of becoming an official out-weight the criticism.
“I’ve seen lots of articles out there of why we have a shortage,” he said. “Fans are mean to the officials and whatever, but this is something you can get involved with with your community. It’s good camaraderie.”
In addition to community involvement, it’s a way to remain physically active and give back to a sport enjoyed as a youth.
“You meet a lot of great people at the schools and then just your fellow officials,” said Bell. “I think that’s the biggest selling point, especially in our football pool, there’s so many good guys that we get along with and just good camaraderie. You go ref a game and then go grab a bite to eat after it. You develop good friendships.”
The local pool, which is based in Bozeman, primarily fields officials in the Gallatin Valley. But the coverage area stretches to as far away as Big Timber, West Yellowstone, Whitehall, and White Sulphur Springs. The current football pool consists of nearly 35 officials.
“We’re at 34 guys, which is just barely enough because we added Gallatin High School, which is more games coming in,” said Bell. “Just more kids coming into this valley that there’s just more and more teams. But officials aren’t going up with it, they’re staying the same. They’re going down.”
Ideally, Bell said, the football pool could comfortably cover the area with numbers in the mid-40’s to 50’s.
“Football, we’re not doing too bad. I think we should be able to cover all junior high and stuff,” he said. “But it’s when you get to basketball, and talking to the volleyball officials I think they’re similar to basketball. Volleyball there’s just so many games that there’s just not enough people to go around and cover them.”
High school is the priority for the MOA, which is not required to cover junior high contests. However, it’s a great way for new officials to get their feet wet.
“We like to do that (cover junior high) because it’s a really good place for a newer official to hopefully work games, less pressure, and get comfortable with it,” said Bell. “It’s nice to do that, but our numbers, we got a lot of officials who are at that higher retirement age.”
Bell added the Gallatin Valley has been lucky in that officials have been able to work most junior high events. It’s something that hasn’t happened for years in some of the larger communities in the state such as Billings, which has struggled to cover high school games.
There is no prior experience necessary to become an official, although former players who have an understanding of the sport will have an easier transition. And officials can work multiple sports such as football in the fall and basketball in the winter.
“Obviously if you’ve been around the game that gives you a big step up,” said Bell. “We’ve had people that come that have never seen a football game, and more times than not those people don’t stick with it because they’re just learning the game. And on top of it have to learn the rules and enforce the rules.”
Still, new officials will receive training and can work as many or as few games as they want. Bell noted the MOA has flexible scheduling.
“If you’re familiar with the game at all, and want to be a part of the community and give back to the sport when you played it, that’s what I always tell people. Be part of the game that you enjoyed playing and stay involved with it,” said Bell. “A lot of people like to do that through coaching, but for officiating it’s not as big a time commitment as a coach.”
For more information on becoming an official visit the Montana High School Association website and click on the MOA tab (https://www.mhsa.org/moa) at the top of the page.
In addition to basketball and football, the MOA is seeking officials for soccer, softball, wrestling and volleyball.