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Thursday night lights? How the high school officials shortage is changing the game

A steady decline in certified high school officials has accelerated during the pandemic, and football is far from the only sport impacted.

MINNEAPOLIS — Fall has long been the season of the quick change for football official Ryan Luessenheide. He's been suiting up to ref college and high school football for 10 years, and even takes the field for the occasional 9th-grade game.

"Pre-pandemic, it was maybe three days a week," he said.

These days, Luessenheide says it's hard to find a day to wash his uniforms.

"Four, five, six days a week depending on the week," he said. "The need is there. If you want to work every night of the week, save Sundays, you probably could."

Officials like Ryan are a hot commodity for Gopher State Officials Association, which is one of four groups that are tasked with assigning officials to high school sporting events.

"One thing I dread is having to call a school and say, I don't have officials for you Friday night," said Gopher State Assigner, George Winn.

So far, Winn hasn't been forced to cancel last minute, he says there's a simple reason why the MEA week varsity games will be split across Wednesday and Thursday this year.

"Collectively here, in the metro area, we did not have enough officials for Wednesday night," he said. 

And Winn says the reason for that shortage isn't too complicated.

"We have a lot of gray hair on the field these days," he said. "Overall, for officials, the numbers are dropping. Retirements, for example, I'm retired now from the field. The high school league has a saying that, without officials, it's just recess."

KARE11 covered the shortage of certified high school officials several times in recent years. But while the number of officials fell by about 9 percent across all sports between 2010 and 2020, it's dropped even more than that during the pandemic.

"I think we went down about 10 percent," said Bob Madison, associate director of the Minnesota State High School League.

Madison says the number of football officials has actually fallen less than sports like soccer and volleyball, which have accelerated the decline. 

In response, the MSHSL is stepping up recruitment efforts and incentives to entice new officials.

And with busy winter sports around the corner, Madison says the MSHSL is also telling schools to be more accommodating to officials' schedules.

"They may have to play on non-traditional nights during the winter," Madison said. "You might have to go on a non-traditional night to make sure that officials can be there and maybe our low-levels, as we call them — JV, B-squad, C-squad — they may too have to play on non-traditional nights."

That flexibility is even more critical this year, because it's not the only shortage they're now having to consider when scheduling games.

"To be quite honest, I hear far more about bus drivers than I do even officials right now," Madison said. "We don't need officials if we can't get our student athletes to games."

It's just one more reason why, Luessenheide is trying to make sure he always has a uniform handy.

"I mean, there's been weeks where I won't be scheduled for a game and I'll maybe get a call at 1:00, saying, 'Hey, we have an official who can't make it, can you fill in?'" he said.

And if he doesn't answer the phone? Winn is ready as well.

George Winn: "I've been pressed into duty to work two varsity games this year," he said. "I've stayed registered with the High School League."

Kent Erdahl: "You came out of retirement?"

Winn: "I did. I came out of retirement." 

Erdahl: "It worked out. A win's a win." 

Winn: "Well, we don't talk about wins, that's for the other people out on the field. But for us, the games will be played, and we're doing everything we can to make sure they get played." 

For more information on how to become a high school official, click here.