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Refs are a dying breed

North Dakota has reached a critical point in its attempt to recruit young high school sports and fine arts officials. Minnesota might not be far behind.

The North Dakota High School Activities Association has identified a shortage of officials throughout all sports and activities, according to assistant executive secretary Dave Carlsrud.

To make matters worse, Carlsrud said the bulk of the existing crop of officials is nearing retirement age, while few prospects are popping up to take their place.

Minnesota gained about 600 new officials last year, according to Minnesota State High School League Associate Director Kevin Merkle.

But shortages remain in several activities in different parts of the state.

Hockey officials in northern Minnesota are particularly scarce, Merkle said.

"The sheer numbers aren't bad," said Carlsrud, the secretary of the North Dakota Officials Association and a veteran prep and college basketball referee. "But it's where they are, the age and when they are available."

"The whole issue of officials in general is a concern," Merkle added. "We are constantly working on bringing new officials in. But it's one thing to bring them in.

"Surveys show if you can keep an official in for three years, they will stick with it."

North Dakota had 1,460 registered officials last year, an increase of 53 from 2007-08.

The state's metro areas are faring a little better, due to bigger populations.

However, Carlsrud said small communities are seeing fewer available officials as people move out of the rural areas.

The most glaring shortage in Fargo-Moorhead is at the sub-varsity level, Red River Valley Officials Association representative and veteran official Dave Klundt said.

Klundt said early game times appear to be a major issue. Many young officials can't leave their primary job early several times a week to make it to a 4 p.m. game.

Some Fargo schools have helped sidestep the issue by pushing back their junior varsity games to 5 p.m. or later, Klundt said.

Western North Dakota has seen shortages so severe that some football games last season had to be moved to earlier in the week because all of the available officiating crews were busy on Friday night.

Carlsrud identified soccer and some of the fine arts as activities in the greatest need of officials.

"I think there is less interest from young people for a couple of reasons," Klundt said.

"When I grew up there was no traveling basketball. I still had a passion and love for the game. Kids these days play 60 games a year. They just seem tired and burned out from the sport."

The NDHSAA this week began its first-ever multi-media campaign to recruit new officials.

The activities association asked the state's television, radio and print outlets to get the word out. The NDHSAA also released four radio spots encouraging people to register.

Those involved with the recruitment effort know it won't be easy.

Even if they are successful in adding several new officials next year, there are no guarantees that the problem will be solved.

A 2001 survey of all states by the National Association of Sports Officials showed that most had a hard time retaining young officials.

Carlsrud said 65 percent of first-year officials without some training or mentoring do not renew. Many officiating crews in North Dakota take time to mentor young referees to ensure a more positive experience, Klundt said.

"We kind of have a mentoring program here in Fargo," Klundt said. "We handpick whose going to be in our (football) crews. ... But not just any official can be a mentor. I think it needs to be the right guy who can work with these guys."

The NASO study cited poor sportsmanship of participants and coaches, and career demands as the biggest reasons officials do not re-register.

Bismarck's Andrew Fisher, a 27-year-old with seven years of officiating experience, almost quit after his first year of umpiring baseball because of the demands of the job.

Fisher stuck with it and now does football, basketball, baseball and softball games.

"It's always really intimidating when you are young and a coach starts questioning a call you are making," Fisher said.

"It's taken me a couple of years to learn how to talk to coaches and not get under their skin. ... After the first year, the fans have become a blur. You don't even hear them."

Merkle said he is monitoring the situation in Minnesota closely, after a few events last year had to be re-scheduled due to a lack of officials.

"When you get to that point it starts to be a concern," he said. "... I certainly have a concern about not getting to the point where it's a crisis."

In North Dakota, things could get dire without an influx of new blood soon.

"I have been saying for four or five years now that we're going to have a problem in four or five years," said Troy Huber, a veteran official in Dickinson, N.D., and member of the North Dakota Officials Association board.

"We're now at that point. ... It's to a point where everybody is just starting to run out of people."