Intramural Sports programs are an essential component of any campus recreation department as they play an important role in the lives of university students. Intramurals represents a majority of student engagement of any activity on most college campuses in North America. Most professionals within campus recreation began in intramurals as sport officials as I did. Sport officials make these programs what they are. The best programs typically also have the top officials. They are essential. There is an old adage about officiating: “Without officials, it’s just recess.” Sports officials bring control to the chaos that is sport, promote fairness, ensure safety and encourage good sportsmanship.
Unfortunately, a national shortage of sport officials is reaching crisis levels. Many intramural programs also feel the affect. I recently conducted a survey of several intramural sports programs to examine the impact. 73% of respondents indicated a shortage of officials has negatively affected their programs to some degree. In the survey, on average each school had approximately 23 officials per sport, a significant drop from years past. The smaller number of sport officials may inherently limit the number of opportunities for students to play intramural games.
Poor sportsmanship and verbal abuse of officials have been identified as contributing factors to officials’ shortages on campuses. The two factors can lead to a toxic environment that drives sport officials away and has hurt the recruitment of new ones.
Low pay was also listed in the survey as a contributing factor. The average pay of an intramural official of respondents in the survey was $9.50 in 2021 and $10.15 in 2022. Klee Sellers, the assistant director of Sport Programs at Georgia Southern University, indicated increasing pay and improving team sportsmanship are two priorities at he feels may address low officiating numbers. Many schools indicated a plan to increase pay in the near future to incentivize students to try officiating.
Some schools indicated they are moving toward cross-training officials in all sports rather than employing sport-specific students to strive toward efficiency and enable a program to keep students all year and better retain them. In fact, this is happening at the University of Texas at Arlington according to the assistant director of Sport Programs, Josh Hale.
While pay is important, respondents indicated offering flexibility in schedule, learning transferrable skills and making new connections were important factors. “Offering competitive student wages as well as the flexibility to work more around their class schedules compared to other organizations helps,” said Trey Trevino, the coordinator of Intramural Sports and Camps at Louisiana State University.
“We sell this experience — sport officiating — as a return on investment,” said Michael Thomas, the coordinator of Sport Programs at the University of Missouri. “If our officials put their full effort into this, they will receive transferable skills and benefits outside of just making $12.25 per hour.”
“We focus heavily on the real-world correlation of how the skills they are learning as officials translate into their professional careers after graduation,” said Daniel Fragel, the assistant director of Competitive Sports at Oklahoma State University (OSU).
“We are selling this job as a place to belong and meeting new friends where you can gain experience that is transferable,” said Eric Vaughn, the associate director at Missouri State.
Solving the Problem
Pay may be a limiting factor due to department budget or campus constraints. However, providing other incentives may prove to be a better way to keep student officials. Texas Tech University (TTU) has implemented an incentive program based upon the number of games or semesters worked. “Ever since we implemented the incentive program, we’ve seen great retention from semester to semester and year to year, and it has created some competition among our officials to see who will achieve the next benchmark first,” said Brett Jackson, the associate director of Sport Programs at TTU.
Providing an avenue for students to get games off-campus may provide another incentive. Many student officials make the jump from intramurals to working games in youth leagues, high school varsity and sub-varsity, and even college games. Intramural programs serve as the conduit for plugging young officials into these outside opportunities that pay better than intramurals can.
Programs that partner with student officials associations provide more incentive for officials to stay with the program. 46% of the respondents in the survey indicated their intramural programs were also linked to campus student officials associations that help provide games to their more senior level students.
“With the intramural program administrators serving as advisors to the club and our intramural supervisors being the club officers, we have more opportunities to reach these students about how these two opportunities — working intramurals and working games off-campus — can continue in tandem to benefit both the program and the student,” said Alyssa Kerr, the coordinator of Sport Programs at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
In this way, intramural programs can incentivize students to stick around by providing them opportunities to make additional money outside of the program. It’s a win-win, the program is able to get students additional training that can come back to the program and trickle down, and the student has access to additional income sources.
Investing in Officials
Those intramural officials who do work games off-campus typically fill the void of officials in youth and sub-varsity contests. The advanced training of these officials often lead them to advancing quickly up the officiating ranks, filling gaps in high school varsity and even college-level games. The investment in these officials pays back to the program. These officials usually become intramural supervisors and play a role in the development of the newer officials on-campus, and some become graduate assistants and eventually professionals within the campus recreation field.
Unfortunately, the pandemic removed opportunities for growth and development off campus with games and entire seasons canceled over the last two years. The pandemic also worsened the national officials’ shortage by hastening the exodus of older officials who decided that the low pay, angry shouting or potential infection was not worth it. In 2021, the average age of a sports official for high school sports was over 50 years old.
According to the National Federation of High School Sports, nearly 50,000 high school referees stopped officiating over the past five years. Getting intramural students plugged into to these gaps may address the shortage if programs can get enough students to meet their needs as well as direct them to opportunities.
A partnership may exist with your state officials’ association or governing body. State high school associations desperately need good young officials and may be willing to work with intramural programs who have and train good young officials. I am currently working with the Oklahoma Secondary Schools Association to offer discounted sport registration rates to students enrolled in the sport officiating course as well as to student members of the student officials association. Beginning this year at OSU, student officials that take the national test to register to officiate with the state governing body in at least one sport will receive a $1 per hour pay increase, with an additional $1 per hour for additional sports registered with the state governing body.
Opportunities for a partnership with academics may already exist on your campus. 36% of survey respondents indicated a sports officiating academic course existed on their campus. As Gandhi once said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” If one does not exist on your campus, create one. I did.
Recently, I approached the school head of the OSU Recreation and Athletic Management program with a curriculum, and he approved it. It will take place in the fall. Students who are enrolled in the course will also start out making $1 to $2 per hour more than students who don’t. Students enrolled in the course that officiate intramurals will receive extra credit for the course.
A shortage of qualified intramural sports graduate assistants, coordinators and assistant directors may result due to decreasing officials numbers in intramural programs if colleges and universities are not intentional on recruiting, training, incentivizing and keeping student officials. Incentives, increased pay, improving sportsmanship and providing opportunities may provide an avenue to reverse this trend.
The data shows an improving trend. The number of sport officials per sport increased by 22% from 2021 to 2022 at the schools responding to the survey. Intramural programs are working hard to trend numbers in the right direction with outside-the-box thinking. As a result, more young people will be available to fill the holes present on courts and fields all across North American that may help save sports across the board by providing a potential solution to the national officiating shortage. Remember, “Without officials, it’s just recess.”
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