The Reason Behind Wisconsin’s Referee Shortage? Unruly Spectators.

By Salina Heller

September 17, 2023

Games are being rescheduled, postponed, and even canceled because there aren’t enough officials available, and the WIAA is pointing to parents as the problem.

On a typical Thursday or Friday night, Matt Atkinson of Eau Claire can be found on a football field or basketball court.

Now starting his 24th year as an official for high school sports, Atkinson says things are clearly different than when he began.

“When I started, getting an opportunity to officiate a varsity basketball or football game was difficult,” Atkinson said. “Now, I’ve heard stories of newer officials getting varsity games in their first year. I spent seven years reffing middle school and junior varsity games before I went to that level. “

The Problem: Parents

Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association (WIAA) Assistant Director Kate Peterson Abiad says there are 6,600 officials registered in the state right now, but they’d love to have 10,000. But that’s a struggle as the retirement rate is high and the retention rate is low.

“We only retain two of every 10 officials over a ten year period,” Abiad said.

A report by the National Association of Sports Officials says the number one reason for quitting is “adult behavior,” aka unruly parent spectators.

“I don’t think people see officials as part of the game–as being like fans, players, and coaches,” Abiad explained. “They see them as a foe.”

Atkinson has frequently found himself on the receiving end of that bad sportsmanship.

Over the years, I’ve faced parents and fans following me out to my car,” he said. “They even followed me home once, yelling, making it personal towards me.”

“They’re only going to make half the people happy, unfortunately,” Abiad added.

The Solution: Students

As part of a fairly new program, roughly 40 Wisconsin schools have begun implementing programs that drive students to register to be officials. Last year, the program recruited 243 new, young officials.

“We had a banner year for kids learning the trade, Abiad said. “They are the future, if they decide to stick with it.”

Abiad added it’s a privilege to play sports: students learn so many skills they can carry into the real world, and officials are there to help facilitate teamwork, not just wins and losses.

“We should have respect for these people,” Abiad explained. “They’re getting home from work–not spending time with their families. They’re putting on a uniform and going to your gym and providing your kids an opportunity to play in a fairly officiated game.”

I am passionate about officiating and enjoy being around the kids,” Atkinson concluded. “I love what I do.”

Interested in Officiating? The WIAA provides a simple pathway to become licensed online. If you register between Sept. 15 and 30, 2023, there’s no processing fee.

MORE: Wisconsin Named the #1 Program That Hasn’t Made the Football Playoffs… Yet



  • Salina Heller

    A former 15-year veteran of reporting local news for western Wisconsin TV and radio stations, Salina Heller also volunteers in community theater, helps organize the Chippewa Valley Air Show, and is kept busy by her daughter’s elementary school PTA meetings. She is a UW-Eau Claire alum.



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