PENNSYLVANIA (WHTM) – High school sports require a team effort to ensure kids are having a safe and valuable experience with coaches, trainers, physical therapists, and referees all playing integral parts. So when one of those components is threatened, so are the games.

Pennsylvania has been experiencing a decline in high school sports officials for eight years now.

“We lost some officials in 2015,” said the Assistant Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) Patrick Gebhart. “Then when the five-year renewal came up in 2020. . . we lost many officials to COVID for a variety of those COVID-related reasons.”

The 2015 referee exodus began after it was ruled that officials would be treated the same as teachers and would be required to go through a clearance process, which they had to pay a fee for. They had to go through that process again in 2020 and even more referees left.

The shortage of officials available has caused many football games, which historically have been held strictly on Friday nights in the Keystone State, to be scheduled for Thursday evenings or Saturday afternoons when the refs are available.

“It might be a benefit to those schools that are playing on Thursday night,” Gebhart said. “If it’s one or two games, they’re now marquee games. They’re not drowned out by the other 10 or 20 games that might be in their locale. So we tried to look at it in a positive manner.”

The PIAA tries to use seven officials for each football contest, but they have the flexibility to play a game with just five referees.

Gebhart says that he cannot confirm for sure because his job is to focus on playoffs, but he believes there have been some regular-season football games that have had to be canceled and/or rescheduled this season due to not having enough referees for a game.

Football is not the only sport that has struggled with official staffing.

Lacrosse is a popular sport in Central Pennsylvania and Southeastern Pennsylvania. It was adopted by the PIAA a couple of years ago and lots of schools chose to add the program. However, many of these schools haven’t been able to pioneer a lacrosse team because there aren’t enough officials to staff the games.

“The number of officials that came on board and continue to come on board does not keep up with the number of schools that want to sponsor lacrosse,” Gebhart said.

In Southwestern Pennsylvania, schools have also struggled with getting enough officials for soccer matches. The schools have resorted to having officials from Ohio and West Virginia, who are also certified PIAA officials, travel across the Keystone State border to work games.

“That’s one area where it’s somewhat remote, so the number of officials [is] not really what we need there,” Gebhart said.

Recently the PIAA removed the two-scrimmage limit that existed for sub-varsity football programs along with some other sports. The board decided that it is important for students to gain the experience to eventually move up to varsity where they will be able to play a regular game.

In scrimmages, there are no officials and there is no scorekeeping.

“We still have kids getting on the field and as long as it’s sub-varsity those kids will continue to play,” Gebhart said. “That way we’re not depriving those 9th and 10th and maybe even 11th graders from participating.”

As noted previously, the process of becoming an official has evolved. There is a test applicants must take for each sport they wish to officiate which costs $40 for two attempts. After passing that, one must complete a clearance process that involves getting fingerprinted for about $60.

After that, the newly minted official will join one of the 450 chapters across the commonwealth, get their uniform and begin attending meetings.

Official compensation is based on the level of the sport they are officiating, which sport they are working and the area of Pennsylvania they are located in. Gebhart estimates that veteran officials in Central Pennsylvania earn about $100 per varsity football game. At the junior high level officials make about $50-$75 per football game. Gebhart says basketball payments are similar in the Midstate.

The PIAA is continuing to come up with efforts to try to increase the number of officials. They have recruitment tents at championship games and are celebrating the first anniversary of their junior official program.

Previously, all officials had to be 18 years old and/or a high school graduate. Now with the junior officials programs 16 and 17-year-olds can officiate sub-varsity contests for 7th, 8th and 9th grade sports.

“We’ve had some success with that,” Gebhart said. “Well over 300 officials have applied to become a junior official [and] not all those folks have become officials, so we’re still working with those, trying to get them on board.”

The junior officials go through the same process as an official 18 or over does to become certified, including attending meetings and paying the $60 clearance fee. The PIAA does waive the $40 fee for the initial test for the juniors.

Due to the success of these initiatives, Gebhart says they are seeing an improvement for the first time in years in the number of officials in Pennsylvania, but the numbers are still much lower than is ideal to ensure games are properly staffed.

The PIAA began charting their numbers last September and as of Sept. 1 of this year, there has been an increase of 600 officials in Pennsylvania.

Gebhart credits the growth, even though it is far from the number of officials they need, to the board’s implementation of the junior program, the money that has been dedicated to the recruitment, the heightened attentiveness to fan and coach behavior toward officials and the genesis of Official Appreciation Weeks that are held in October, January and April.

“I see it improving in Pennsylvania,” Gebhart said. “I think we’re doing much better than other states.”