Endangered species: umpire shortages hurting local leagues

Abuse is the most prominent obstacle umpires face. Artwork by Zac Baruhas.
SHARE:
Local sporting clubs are feeling the impact as umpire and referee numbers dwindle in the wake of covid lockdowns and sideline abuse. Zac Baruhas and Jordy Athanassiou report.

Local sporting teams may have returned to the fields in 2021 after grassroots sporting competitions were cancelled last year, but leagues are now struggling to find umpires.

Southern Football Netball League (SFNL) umpire Michael Moore said umpire shortages were a growing problem.

“Whether it’s the endless abuse, or older umpires simply retiring so that they can spend the weekend with their families instead, there’s less of us sticking around and less young umpires coming through,” Mr Moore said.

With four senior divisions, each with a corresponding reserves division, the SFNL relied on roughly 900 umpires to officiate its matches in 2019.

Mr Moore said the 2021 season was down to about 600 umpires and it was time league administrators took action to improve conditions before it was too late.

The reality is that if players were subject to copping what we cop, big changes would’ve been made a long time ago.

“The answer, in my opinion, is to generate more involvement with youngsters at the community level. That way we’ll have more umpires coming through, and those that don’t become umpires will at least be aware and more appreciative of the role we play,” Mr Moore said.

Endangered species: umpire shortages hurting local leagues
Southern Football Netball League (SFNL) umpire Michael Moore. Picture by Jordy Athanassiou

South Metro Junior Football League (SMJFL) head of umpire operations Cam Watts said the most common challenge for recruiting umpires was abuse and disrespect.

The perception can be that they’re going to walk onto a field as a young umpire and immediately cop disrespect and that sort of thing. It’s always a tough one to battle.

He said respect for umpires starts at the top, with the perception of AFL umpires having a clear effect on local leagues.

“A lot of our umpires obviously love footy and love going into the MCG on the weekend. It can be quite confronting for them to see non-stop yelling at umpires, especially for younger umpires as they might think that’s what it will be like if they make a mistake too,” he said.

The SMJFL is eager to support young umpires to increase their enjoyment, encourage them to return for future seasons, and deal with adversity on the field.

Endangered species: umpire shortages hurting local leagues
Head of SMJFL umpire operations Cam Watts. Picture supplied  

“We now have 11 umpire coaches, which is more than we’ve ever had, who not only teach them the skills necessary before they set foot on the park but also instil confidence that making mistakes is okay,” he said.

“We make sure all novice level umpires are alongside an experienced umpire, so if they make a mistake there’s instant support and coaching on field.”

Mr Watts said while it was exciting to have more first-year umpires than usual, last year’s first years had been set back 12 months and the number of more experienced umpires in the league had declined.

“A lot of people had to find other weekend jobs last year due to Covid just to get some money coming in, and they’ve continued those jobs. So we’ve lost a few.”

Endangered species: umpire shortages hurting local leagues
An SFNL umpire in action. Picture by Jordy Athanassiou.

Unfortunately, it’s not an isolated issue, with other sporting codes experiencing similar shortages.

Football Victoria referee Justin Lampert said soccer was the most popular grassroots sport for Australian kids, yet each weekend many local matches were taking place without any match officials.

We’re at a stage now where we have senior men’s and women’s matches taking place on Saturdays where the teams are expected to agree on some volunteer in attendance to officiate. It really is a joke.

“I can’t blame young people for not wanting to get started in refereeing anymore. The hours aren’t great, the pay is nothing special, and if you’re lucky you may not have to hear two hours of crap from the sidelines,” Mr Lampert said.

Endangered species: umpire shortages hurting local leagues
Football Victoria referee Justin Lampert. Picture by Jordy Athanassiou.

According to Football Victoria’s referee schedule, officials for a Men’s State League Five match, the lowest tier of competitive senior soccer in Metro Melbourne, receive up to a $120 per match, with the two assistants receiving $65 each.

Mr Lampert said match officials were expected to arrive at the ground at least 45 minutes before kick-off and were often required to stay back after the final whistle.

“Including travel time, [refereeing] a game really is an all-day commitment, so it’s really not hard to walk away from if you aren’t enjoying it.

Jack MacLean, 24, is an umpire who has progressed from the SMJFL in his junior days to the VAFA. He said he had also noticed a drop-off in the number of experienced umpires.

Endangered species: umpire shortages hurting local leagues
Security holding back a fan shouting abuse at an umpire, when Collingwood lost a match after the siren in April. Picture: Twitter.

“Once you get to a higher level of umpiring, there’s quite a large time commitment involved, and it can be a high-pressure environment at times,” he said.

We’ve lost about a dozen of our top umpires due to them pursuing other passions or losing interest due to lockdown.

Mr MacLean said he would encourage anyone who might consider umpiring to be brave and give it a try.

“I think if you don’t try, you don’t know. It’s a really good way to be involved in the sport. So, if you’re not sure, just do it. In my opinion, only good things can come with it,” he said.

Mr Watts said umpiring was not only great fun and fitness but built important life skills.

“Our kids learn a lot of skills they don’t get in the classroom, such as how to communicate with older people and those they don’t know. The confidence and public speaking part is super valuable.”