REFEREE SHORTAGE SPURS LACK OF HOME GAMES, CANCELLATIONS

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With fall sporting events beginning in less than a month, coaches and athletes are busy preparing for competition, but there is one key element which they do not control and cannot compete without: officials. Without them, games cannot be played, and the number of men and women qualified to officiate prep sports has dwindled over time with very few new recruits to take the places of those who have moved or retired. 

The lack of officials has put a strain on the few still available. It also takes its toll on athletic directors, who must now take into consideration the availability of a handful of qualified and willing bodies to work games when they are scheduling home matches. 

Traveling to Miami or further takes its toll on students and coaches alike, making home games something to look forward to, but without enough officials, catching a game will become an automatic trip to the mainland. Athletic directors and coaches already have a difficult time finding teams willing to make the trip to the Keys, and the added worry of available officials makes the job all the more complicated. 

The shortage affects Key West and Marathon the most, as Coral Shores often draws officials from Dade County due to its proximity to the mainland. Fall sports are lacking in numbers of available referees, but soccer season became a dire issue last year. 

Justin Martin, athletic director at Key West High School, was forced to juggle rescheduling, relocating and even canceling matches last winter due to the shortage. 

“It has been a lot of give and take,” he said last November after a long series of game changes and relocations. A rescheduled match sets off a domino effect at the school level, altering everything from exams to transportation. 

So what happened to the officials who presided over the games and matches in years past? “The officials in Key West have mainly aged out or moved away,” said Lance Martin, athletic director at Marathon High. “The naval base used to have a lot of guys do some officiating on the side, but that is not the case anymore. It is very difficult to get new ones due to the low pay and the verbal abuse they take at times from spectators.”

Indeed, fans can be troublesome, and parents even worse at times, but those issues can be controlled, to a degree, at the school level. All three Keys schools have administrators on duty at home games, and often the school resource officer is also present. At football games, there are often multiple officers, and the Florida High School Athletic Association has stressed sportsmanship from players and fans as of late, making the belligerent fan in the stands hurling profanities and insults far less common than in the past. 

This leaves the issue of pay. While it would be impossible to make a living in Monroe County by refereeing alone, the job could make a great side hustle for an avid sports fan. Football officials make $111 per game. Volleyball and soccer referees make $79 and baseball and softball umpires’ pay stands at $85. The pay scale is set by the FHSAA and can include travel expenses as well, making it a decent deal for a few hours of work for someone who enjoys sports. 

If you are interested in becoming an official, you can find all the information at fhsaa.com. To be a regular official, the first step is to register with a local officials association. A good start would be to check out midkeysofficials.com or contact the president of the Middle Keys Officials, Casey Scheu at 305-360-3054.  You must be 18 years old to serve as a referee; 16- and 17-year-olds, while they can’t be head refs, can become junior officials. 

Prospective officials can study materials supplied by the FHSAA and then take an untimed online exam and undergo a background check. In addition to enjoying on-field sports action and earning some extra money, you would be helping keep prep sports alive in the Florida Keys.

Tracy McDonald fled to the Keys from the frozen mountains of Pennsylvania hours after graduating from college and never looked back. She is a second generation coach and educator, and has taught in the public school system for over 25 years. She and her husband met at a beginning teacher meeting in 1997 and have three children born and raised in Monroe County. In her free time, McDonald loves flea markets, historical fiction and long runs in the heat.