Introduction to Recruiting, Developing, and Retaining Sport Officials

Bailey Slusher is an ordinary teenager. He lives in Indiana, has graduated from high school, and is now completing college-level business administration courses. He is also an avid sports fan and has grown up in a sport-loving family. His brother Brevin plays high school varsity basketball and his father Neil is a former basketball coach. Bailey, in contrast, is a basketball referee. In the April 2018 issue of Referee magazine, Bailey is described as having an “intense love” for basketball officiating (Windier, 2018, p. 65). For those that pursue officiating, many do so because of their love for the sport (Livingston et al., 2017). Hence, Bailey’s reason for officiating, relative to others that engage in the avocation, is not unique. The Slusher family, moreover, provides a common portrait of organized sport involvement in North America. They are illustrative of the tendency for multiple members of a given family, including individuals from different generations, to be involved in the same sport in either similar or differing roles. And there are many such roles to choose from, including those that provide support for (e.g., administrators, team managers, spectators, and others) versus those that require direct participation within competition (i.e., athletes, coaches, and officials). In terms of the latter grouping, Brevin as an athlete represents the largest participant cluster, while coaches, like dad Neil, represent the second largest member group. As an official, Bailey represents the smallest - and dare we say most important yet least celebrated or appreciated - cohort of direct sport participants. This may seem like a rather bold statement; however, without rules (and therefore officials), sport is merely reduced to play. To understand this perspective, one needs to view sport as being more than a game or leisure activity.

Sports represent games or competitions of physical prowess which have been formalized or codified with the addition of rules. A track meet with carefully measured distances, high-tech timing devices, and officials is a very different entity than a lunch-hour race between schoolchildren on a playground. Similarly, a game of ice hockey played inside a rink of known dimensions in the presence of a game clock, scorekeepers, and on-ice officials is not the same as a game of shinny between two teams on a frozen pond. Rules impose structure on sport competitions, thereby creating conditions under which proficiency in physical skills and strategic prowess can be effectively tested between competitors (Torres, 2010). In some instances, the contest is evaluative in nature (e.g., diving or gymnastics where performance is judged against a gold standard), while in other instances, it is comparative (e.g., one team scores more points than another, or an individual racer finishes ahead of all other competitors). As arbiters of these contests, officials play a critical role in upholding both the spirit and the letter of the laws to ensure that all competitors are guaranteed an opportunity to compete and perform in a predictable and safe environment that is both fair and equitable. Those who opt into the role of referee, umpire, or judge - despite constant implicit and explicit challenges to their competence, fairness, and legitimacy in the midst of competition (Simmons, 2011) - must be viewed as competent and committed to performing the job to the best of their abilities while adopting an impartial stance. The significance of this cannot be overstated, for if a sport official is perceived to be lacking in the performance of his or her officiating duties, critique is usually swift to follow.

As you will read in Chapter 2, social constructions, and the narratives that arise from them, of officials as sports’ anti-heroes are an age-old phenomenon. The current problem at hand, however, is that these accounts contribute to officiating being increasingly viewed as an undesirable pursuit. For example, incidents of corruption and match fixing at the elite or professional level can be one point of public discussion that jeopardizes the public image and credibility of officials at all levels (Gill, 2013). This is in part due to both the nature of and the speed with which negative portrayals of sport officials are made available to the general public. The rapid evolution of cell phone technology, including high-resolution photo and video capabilities, combined with the popularity of unfiltered on-line social media platforms has served to exponentially amplify both the volume of critiques generated and the speed with which they are disseminated. As an example, a simple search of the World Wide Web using the terms “referee” and “assault” yields thousands of headlines, many of which are inevitably recently reported events. Whether verbal or physical in nature, these assaults are almost always associated with the aggressors’ beliefs that the official failed to make the right call or unfairly penalized an athlete or coach in the course of carrying out her or his duties. To be fair, we acknowledge that in some instances these critiques may be accurate - yet in many instances they are not. We also concede that it is a tough job and not everyone will naturally aspire to or have the talent to excel in the role. However, we would equally argue that it is never justifiable, acceptable, or ethical for officials to be angrily demeaned, slandered, threatened, or assaulted by players, coaches, or spectators. The expectation that an official will always be “perfect” in performing their duties, including youth-aged officials just learning their craft, is simply unjust and unrealistic.

Like Bailey Slusher, four out of every five amateur sport officials will tell you that they enter into and enjoy officiating because of their love for the sport (Livingston Forbes, 2016). This activity, moreover, provides them with a viable way to give back to their sport and to stay connected to others with like interests (Livingston & Forbes, 2017). The social communities that evolve as a result are a source of enjoyment and pleasure. Understanding this is important, for enjoyment or satisfaction is a strong predictor of persistence in sport activities (Boiché & Sarrazin, 2009). Likewise, it should not be surprising that negative commentaries from others, including threats of verbal or physical abuse, rank as the number one reason cited by youth-aged entry-level officials for dropping out (Livingston et al., 2017). Numerous stories in the popular media reinforce this observation; however, such accounts also tend to overgeneralize and suggest the same is true for more experienced officials. In fact, this is rarely the case. Older officials tend to identify family and career demands, or physical limitations caused by age or injury, as the foremost reason for discontinuing their participation. Lack of opportunities for advancement, excessive travel times, and high costs (e.g., registration and insurance fees, equipment) have also been shown to weigh on the decision to quit. Although understudied in comparison to their playing and coaching counterparts, these fresh insights are the product of new theoretical frameworks of inquiry (Chapter 3) and a growing body of evidence on why officials drop out, as well as why they enter into, persist, and thrive in the role. For example, the decision to leave officiating may be influenced by multiple factors as they relate to the individual (e.g., age, experience, gender) (Chapter 4), the task (e.g., demands of a specific sport) (Chapter 5), or the organizational environment (e.g., policies, structures, key actors) in which they are immersed (Chapter 6). Understanding the dynamic interaction between these factors, and being able to effectively address them going forward, will be important if sport organizations hope to stem the problematic rates of officiating attrition observed for various sports around the globe.

Dropping out from the officiating ranks is not a new problem nor is it unique to any given sport. Rather, it is a persistent, pervasive, and global problem and one that Australian researchers have labelled as “...a significant management problem for most sport organizations...” (Cuskelly & Hoye, 2013, p. 451). To put this into context, the magnitude and scope of the problem needs to be considered. For example, the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported an overall decline of 28% in active sport officials from 1993 to 2010 (i.e., from 435,800 to 313,000 individuals, respectively) (Cuskelly & Hoye, 2013). In Canada, these losses were comparably greater, with a 38% decline in active sport officials observed between 1998 and 2010 (i.e., from 937,000 to 582,485, respectively) (Canadian Heritage, 2013; Cuskelly & Hoye, 2013). The shortages created by dropout, moreover, may be compounded by the growth in a sport’s popularity or expansion into new countries. In the United States, for example, it is estimated that there will be a 6% increased need for officials by 2028 (U.S. Bureau of Labour Statistics, 2018).

Viewing data from differing sports over the past two decades, at a variety of playing levels, yields equally disheartening results. For example, in 1998 the Dutch volleyball association reported losing 20% of its referees on an annual basis (VanYperen, 1998). Likewise, in the early 2000s, Deacon (2001) noted that 30% of all officials in the Canadian Hockey Association quit every year, as did approximately two-thirds of the new soccer referee recruits in one Canadian province. At about the same time, evidence was emerging out of the United States suggesting that a widespread shortage of officials was forthcoming, with particular challenges beginning to emerge in the sports of field hockey and soccer (Titlebaum, Haberlin, & Titlebaum, 2009). The sport of soccer (or football as it is known in most countries) has a particularly tarnished reputation for the way officials are treated and the resulting attrition that takes place. In England, in an effort to stem attrition and to rebuild its officiating human resources, the English Football Association (FA) launched its “Respect” campaign in 2008 to recruit and retain officials, and early data suggested that it was having the desired response (Parsons & Bairner, 2015). However, in the absence of ongoing research and evaluation, little is known as to whether the short-term successes of such campaigns - with many sports having implemented them in an effort to curb officiating attrition (e.g., Canadian Hockey Association’s 1999 “Shared Respect Initiative”, Australia’s National Rugby League 2016 “Respect Campaign”, or Australian Sports Commission’s “Year of the Official” 2003) - will prove effective in the long term when it comes to stemming the outflow of officials.

From our perspective, the future of competitive sport demands that sport officials be seen on par with athletes and coaches as necessary participants. Efforts to retain officials, moreover, must be evidencebased, deliberate in effort, and comprehensive in approach. Sport officials are disproportionately underrepresented in sport science research compared to athletes and coaches (MacMahon et al., 2015). Such an investment is minimal at best, yet the good news is that researchers from around the world are now investing more time and effort than ever before in studying this important group of sport participants. In doing so, they are taking stock of what has been studied, while also identifying viable theoretical frameworks, and major information gaps worthy of further study in order to legitimize sport officiating as bona fide field of study (Hancock, Rix-Lièvre, & Côté, 2015). An equally important, yet arguably more immediate and pressing, challenge, however, is for the results of this research to be intentionally and meaningfully mobilized and translated for use by those responsible for supporting the recruitment, retention, development, and advancement of sport officials from the grassroots to professional levels.

In this book, the linkages between these newly emerging research findings and the development, planning, and implementation of multifaceted Officiating Development Programs (ODP) are explored (Chapter 7), while at the same time emphasizing the importance of ongoing research and evaluation in order to assess the effectiveness of such programs (Chapter 8). An ongoing commitment to generating and gathering new evidence through research and evaluation, rather than a reliance on what we think we know and what we have always done, will also be required if we are to effectively stem the current issues faced by sport administrators in the recruitment, retention, development, and advancement of sport officials to their highest levels of performance and effectiveness. Implicit within this is the need to continuously monitor the influence of newly emerging issues within sport (Chapter 9), and the impact -positive or negative - that they may have on the officials’ themselves. For example, it is likely that ongoing technological change will continue to impact officials and that the consequences of such change will require new approaches to future research problems.

Importantly, before delving more deeply into all things officiating, it is important to acknowledge that identifying a “one-size-fits-all” officiating solution for all people, sports, and organizations is not achievable, nor advisable. Sport is complex in that it is subject to differing cultural expectations, funding mechanisms, and organizational dynamics, both within and between countries. There are also varying levels of competition (i.e., amateur versus professional, recreational versus competitive), and opportunities for advancement may be distinctly different in highly populated urban versus lesser-populated rural environments. To this end, the purpose of this book is to provide an evidence-based, flexible, and practical guide to those responsible for the recruitment, retention, development, and advancement of amateur-level sport officials. Equipping sport organizations with a deeper understanding and appreciation of officiating will be essential if they are to be enabled to shift their efforts away from activities constantly focused on the recruitment and training of new officials (i.e., a negative quantitative focus) to that of improving the quality of an existing stable officiating corps (i.e., a positive qualitative focus).


  • • For those that pursue officiating, many do so because of their love for the sport.
  • • Sports represent games and competitions of physical prowess which have been formalized or codified with the addition of rules.
  • (Continued)
  • • Officials play a critical role in upholding both the spirit and the letter of the laws to ensure that all competitors are guaranteed an opportunity to compete and perform in a predictable and safe environment that is both fair and equitable.
  • • The expectation that an official will always be “perfect” in performing their duties, including youth-aged officials just learning their craft, is simply unrealistic and creates a disproportionate amount of pressure on officials.

Sport Official Dropout

  • • Attrition from the officiating ranks is a significant sport management problem which is persistent, pervasive, and global in nature.
  • • Officiating dropout is a product of multiple factors, including those that pertain to the individual, the sport they officiate, and the officiating environment in which they are immersed.

Future Issues and Solutions to Consider

  • • The future of competitive sport demands that sport officials be seen on par with athletes and coaches as necessary participants within it.
  • • Efforts to retain officials then must be evidence-based, deliberate in effort, and comprehensive in approach.
  • • In order to be effective, Officiating Development Programs (ODP) programs must be evidence-based and evaluated on an ongoing basis.
  • • Identifying a “one-size-fits-all” officiating solution for all people, sports, and organizations is not achievable, nor advisable.


Boiché, J.C.S., & Sarrazin, P.G. (2009). Proximal and distal factors associated with dropout versus maintained participation in organized sport. Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, 8, 9-16.

Canadian Heritage. (2013). Sport participation 2010: Research paper. Ottawa, ON: Government of Canada.

Cuskelly, G., & Hoye, R. (2013). Sports officials’ intentions to continue. Sport Management Review, 16, 451-464.

Deacon, J. (2001, March 26). Rink rage. Maclean's, 114(13), 20-24.

Gill, R. (2013). AFL umpires: Brand and reputation. Journal of Sociological Research, 4(2), 284-291.

Hancock, D.J., Rix-Lièvre, G., & Côté, J. (2015). Citation network analysis of research on sport officials: A lack of interconnectivity. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 8, 95-105.

Livingston, L.A., & Forbes, S.L. (2016). Factors contributing to the retention of Canadian amateur sport officials: Motivations, perceived organizational support, and resilience. International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching, 11,342-355.

Livingston, L.A., & Forbes, S.L. (2017). Just bounce right back up and dust yourself off: Participation motivations, resilience, and perceived organizational support amongst amateur baseball umpires. Baseball Research Journal, 46(2), 91-101.

Livingston, L.A., Forbes, S.L., Wattie, N., Pearson, N., Camacho, T., & Varian, P. (2017). Sport officiating recruitment, development, and retention: A call to action. Current Issues in Sport Science, 2, Oil. doi: 10.15203/ CISS_2017.011.

Parsons, T, & Bairner, A. (2015). You want the buzz of having done well in a game that wasn’t easy: A sociological examination of the job commitment of English football referees. Movement & Sport Sciences, 87, 41-52.

Simmons, P. (2011). Competent, dependable and respectful: Football refereeing as a model for communicating fairness. Ethical Space: The International Journal of Communication Ethics, 8, 33-42.

Titlebaum, P.J., Haberlin, N., & Titlebaum, G. (2009). Recruitment and retention of sports officials. Recreational Sports Journal, 33, 102-108.

Torres, C.R. (2010). The danger of selectively changing the rules in youth sport: The case of the strike zone. JOHPERD, 81(5), 29-34.

United States Bureau of Labour and Statistics. (2019, September 4). Umpires, referees, and other sports officials. Retrieved from entertainment-and-sports/umpires-referees-and-other-sports-officials.htm

VanYperen, N.W. (1998). Predicting stay/leave behavior among volleyball referees. The Sport Psychologist, 12,427-439.

Windier, T. (2018). Bailey’s shot. Referee, 43(4), 64-65.

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >