Okanogan County schools face shortage of sports referees

Numbers down almost half

Mike Maltais/QCH Rick Lewis, right, confers with another referee during a break in a 2018 Brewster High School varsity girls’ basketball game.

Courtesy Rick Lewis Tim Lewis. Liberty /bell High School and WSU graduate, referees a high school basketball game.

OKANOGAN COUNTY – The COVID pandemic has disrupted daily life in countless areas including school sports programs and the ranks of high school sports referees have not been immune to the changes. Due to COVID-19 adjustments this year’s traditional WIAA winter sports are being played in Season 3 that started around mid-May. Pateros, for example played its first basketball game on May 15. Bridgeport will play its first its basketball game on May 22.

Winthrop resident Rick Lewis of the Okanogan County Basketball Officials Association (OCBOA) has officiated county high school basketball games for 30 years and is sounding the alarm that Okanogan and Chelan counties are facing a critical shortage of referees going into this revised winter season. Lewis submitted the following assessment based upon his experience and reports from others in his field.

By Rick Lewis, Okanogan County Basketball Officials Association

As the 2021 Washington state high school sports season moves from Covid-19 Season 2 (traditional Spring sports) into Season 3 (traditional Winter sports), the out-of-the-normal season of May 12-June 19 has found North Central Washington’s basketball officials associations in Okanogan and Chelan Counties significantly short of game officials. Early estimates show rosters of game referees are down by as much as 50 percent, with several differing factors playing a role in the loss of game refs.

As of April 30, Okanogan County Basketball Officials Association (OCBOA) Assignor Mike Thornton was reporting only 15 of the normal 25 varsity certified officials have indicated they are returning for the upcoming season to cover varsity, junior varsity, and junior high levels.

The Okanogan County Association needs additional members from local communities to help cover the local middle school and Junior Varsity levels, especially. Game fees vary from about $25 per game for Middle School to $40 for High School Junior Varsity and $50 for High School Varsity. There is some adjustment at the Middle School and Junior Varsity levels for the difference between two-and three-person crews. There is an annual assessment of $65 that covers both the WOA and local Association dues, complete set of books covering rules and the mechanics of officiating, and provides a year subscription to Referee Magazine, a WOA State Pass for all state tournaments and events and insurance coverage through the National Association of Sports Officials. Contact Mike Thornton in Omak at (509) 826-1965 for more information.

In Chelan County, long time referee and member of the Washington Officials Association (WOA) Board of Directors Steve Simonson reports numbers are down about 33 percent in that association.

Numbers might be below 50 percent in the Columbia Basin Association, centered in Grant County and serving most of the area inside the Big Bend of the Columbia outside the eastern tier of counties.

It would be a great time for those thinking about officiating,” said Simonson. “With the shortage there will be lots of games to ref and with no playoffs or tournaments, a great time to learn about officiating.”

WOA Executive Director Todd Stordahl reported that through Seasons 1 and 2 the figures are consistent across all the sports that require game officials. It is still early for firm numbers on Season 3. Stordahl says, though, the WOA is “not sure about basketball officials (yet), but other sports are down about 33-37 percent.”

The total number of games is down as some schools are not offering junior high or junior varsity programs this year.

So that helps,” said Stordahl. “It seems like the officials that have opted to officiate have also made themselves available to cover as many games as possible. It still isn’t enough, but the effort is definitely there”.

Of the drop in numbers, the shifting of the season from late November through February to late May and early June seems to be a key factor everywhere. Officiating high schools in Washington is not usually a primary income source, so work responsibilities and the demands of “day jobs” take precedence with individual scheduling and taking time away to travel and call games is more difficult. Covid precautions and a resistance to wearing the state-mandated facial protections are also key in the decision to avoid officiating this year, and the normal general turnover in game officiating is also present.

Liberty Bell and WSU graduate and current Pullman resident Tim Lewis is a Board member and trainer for the Southeast Washington Basketball Officials Association (SEWBOA). An additional factor in that area is the loss of college student officials as key to that association. With both Washington State and the University of Idaho out for the summer in early May, they will lose significant numbers (about 25 percent) leaving that area to go for summer jobs and graduating seniors leaving the area for good. SEWBOA also depends largely on schoolteachers and staff.

It's a lot tougher to ask our schoolteachers to get that sub for their last period so they can drive to Pomeroy or Rosalia now in the heat of finishing the school year, than it is the week of Christmas break,” said Lewis. “At some point, as selfless as our people are, we have to keep their mental and physical health in mind and working games six nights a week isn't going to be healthy mentally or physically for 90% of our officials. As much as we try to preach the fun aspect of what we do, there's still a lot of brain work that goes into refereeing basketball and it can wear on people.”

Most associations while gearing up for the impending season are still ready to accept new members, train them up and set them out with veterans to learn the craft this year. Simonson agrees with the sentiment in this year of no District, Regional or State tournaments, “it’s a good year to jump in and learn.” There are plenty of games and fewer officials which equals big opportunity to learn, gain experience and discover how rewarding officiating can be.


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