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New wrinkles in old problem: What's making the persistent referee shortage worse

The shortages are particularly bad across southeastern Minnesota during the current basketball seasons.

SPRING LAKE PARK, Minn. — We've been reporting for years on the severe shortage of referees for youth and high school sports.

It's been especially bad during this basketball season, and now, there are new snarls adding to the mess.

"Tonight is a good example of how the puzzle gets put together on any given night," said referee Zach Gustafson, who had to officiate an unexpected doubleheader Tuesday night between Spring Lake Park and Totino-Grace.

"There was a sick call in Jordan, Minnesota, so I had to pull an official from our 7 p.m. boys game here to go to Jordan to work two games, and I'll be working the boys varsity after the girls varsity."

Sick calls are just one piece of the ongoing referee shortage puzzle. Add in aging referees and poor sportsmanship from some players and parents, and at least 50,000 of them have quit across the country since the pandemic.

"We don't all have people sitting at home on the bench, especially on Tuesdays, put it that way," said Gustafson. 

Gustafson manages 262 refs across the metro as the director of operations for Minneapolis officials. 

While Jared Butson assigns referees to games for the Rochester Area Officials Association. There are up to 125 officials across southeastern Minnesota, but Butson says he could use 20 more, in part, because of several new wrinkles. 

Butson says one reason is because they are upping the number of refs at games from two to three as player's skill levels keep improving. 

"You have stronger angles on plays, there are fewer blind spots and less trying to guess on a play, if you will," said Butson, who also says a shot clock will also be required at varsity games next year.

"It's just something else for us officials to worry about and/or be up on the rules," said Gustafson, who says he's still willing to work through the challenges to make sure every season is a slam dunk. 

"Because I truly believe there are important life lessons learned through athletics and being part of that bigger puzzle for everybody is satisfactory," said Gustafson.

To try and recruit new and younger referees, Gustafson says he's considering tapping into teachers and student-athletes. They are also hoping to schedule more doubleheaders at one school and on days that are less busy, like Wednesday and Saturday. 

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