The notion of “Friday Night Lights” is different this year.
Thanks to a referee shortage that’s being felt throughout the state, high school football no longer just happens on Friday evenings. Football fields are also being illuminated on Thursday and Saturday nights this season. Some games aren’t requiring lights at all, being played on Saturday afternoons.
Insiders had seen these moves on the horizon, having witnessed a gradual decline in the numbers of officials in the area the last few years. It’s not just football that’s being pinched this fall. The same has happened in volleyball, whose referee numbers have also shrunk state-wide and caused a demand for the shifting of games.
A similar scenario figures to unveil itself when the basketball season hits.
Rochester Area Officials Association football scheduler Jared Butson had all of this on his radar starting in 2019. That was the start of him having to patch things together in order to have enough referees to cover all of the football games occurring in southeastern Minnesota. It also marked the beginning — at least occasionally — of him needing to shift individual games from Friday nights, a lack of referees the problem.
“The (referee) numbers were starting to go down a little bit in 2019,” Butson said. “And then the pandemic hit, and that sped things up. We had people who were on the fence about retiring and then they had time off from it (during the pandemic) and they said ‘Hey, this is pretty nice.’”
“Pretty nice” turned into a number of them leaving refereeing for good.
So, here we are.
This past Saturday saw six southeastern Minnesota football games on the schedule. The season started with four games being played on Thursday, Sept. 2.
In volleyball, an entire conference — the Southeast Conference — had its normal Tuesday schedule of games shifted to Mondays. It was just one of the moves made by southeastern Minnesota volleyball scheduler Jeff Newton in order to make things work, the referee shortage in mind.
These are different times in high school sports.
“We’ve got two Saturday games this season, which is fine,” Byron football coach Ben Halder said. “There’s an allure to ‘Friday Night Lights.’ But high school football teams have to do what’s necessary to make sure the games happen.”
En masse, high school coaches and athletic directors have been “taking it for the team” with all of these scheduling shifts. They realize the options were few in order for the games to be played, so they've understood.
When Butson examined his depleted football officials pool this summer and gauged it against the number of games being played, he knew it was time to take unprecedented action. Volleyball scheduler Newton detected the same problems in his sport and took similar measures, moving games to new days.
With it, it’s been goodbye to the sacredness of “Friday Night Lights” and hello to flexibility — in all kinds of prep sports.
But even more important, what’s followed has been an examination of the root of the referees shortage and what to do about it.
Lots to consider
A number of factors are being considered, not the least of which is devising ways to ensure that referees are treated respectfully by fans.
“I think there are a lot of referees who don’t think they get treated well by spectators and don’t feel like it’s worth taking the abuse, so they get out,” longtime Grand Meadow football coach and athletic director Gary Sloan said. “I would like to see better sportsmanship by spectators at every school, Grand Meadow included. I know a lot of officials personally and have a great deal of respect for what they do. Without them, we don’t have games.”
One age group has especially been problematic when it comes to this recent decline in available high school referees. That’s the youngest ones, the 25-35 year olds.
Fewer and fewer men and women in that age bracket are signing up to officiate anymore. That’s a big problem, as so many from the current pool of referees are in their 50s and 60s and gradually hanging up their whistles. That means new hires need to be made, with the preference being young ones who'll stay with it for a long time.
All of these factors have helped make for a perfect storm of trouble with an even bigger referee shortage likely to come.
Unless, of course, something is done about it.
A couple of ideas
Longtime football and basketball referee Tristan Severson of Plainview believes the compensation for referees could be sweetened, a possible lure to the younger crowd.
“I think money has something to do with it,” said the 44-year-old Severson, a referee for the last 23 years. “You look at the ease with which people can do other things to make money, and you can see why people don’t want to do it. A lot of people don’t want to referee because they don’t want the conflict that goes with it. They have enough conflict in their jobs. Plus, it’s taking away from their family time.”
So, Severson suggests a pay hike for referees as an incentive. He also suggests that prospective referees be made abundantly aware of the enjoyment that comes with this work. Severson considers his refereeing time to be among the most satisfying hours that he spends each week.
He says there's nothing like it.
“I just love giving back to the kids (who are playing),” said Severson, who’s father, Buck Severson, was also a longtime referee. “And it’s the relationships that come out of it that are so rewarding. The friendships I’ve made with other officials, local athletic directors and coaches, those are some of my best friends now. It’s the stories we share and how we support each other that is so special.”