Aurora ramps up free training for umpires, referees to cover growing gap in officials for citywide sports

Each year, the number of organized adult and youth sports competitions in Colorado rises. And each year, the number of people ready to officiate those competitions drops.

In Aurora, that has led to two things: Parks employees are working overtime to cover competitions, and the city is training local residents to become the next generation of officials.

“It’s not just Colorado. It’s every state in the country,” said Bert Borgman, assistant commissioner for the Colorado High School Activities Association, or CHSAA. “We’re experiencing shortages of officials in all sports — referees for football, basketball, soccer; umpires for baseball and softball; gymnastics judges and so on.”

Beth Yacono, a senior recreation specialist with the city of Aurora, has led umpire and referee training for several years.

“We’re short across the board for all different sports officials,” she said “I used to charge for the time and lessons, but now that we have such a shortage, that isn’t worth it,” she said. “We hold a fast-pitch softball clinic for our youth softball umpires every year, and now (we train officials) for youth basketball, soccer, lacrosse, baseball and adult kickball. We will be having another adult slow-pitch softball training next spring before our playing season starts.”

Yacono, who has more than 35 years of experience in umpiring, typically teaches free officiating clinics in spring and fall. She just ended an additional summer clinic for softball umpires because there are not enough officials to cover the city’s massive softball program. Parks and recreation employees have stepped up to, literally, cover the bases during 50-60 games a season, she said.

“We cover the rules of the game and then do field training. These umpires will now go to on-field training with an experienced umpire in live games,” Yacono said.

Aurora’s adult softball league includes more than 2,500 games a season. The city’s recreation leagues include upward of 5,000 adult and youth games — and all need officiating, the city said.

Full-time and part-time city staffers fill in as officials and get paid for it, if they’re eligible.

“We also have contracted some of our games out to official assigning companies when we need more officials than staff can cover,” Yacono said. “This year has been a challenging year for youth basketball and adult softball. All of the full-time staff in the sports office have had to officiate games this year in the sports they manage. I personally have done over 20 adult softball games this year.”

It’s an issue shared by cities across the U.S., said Tom Robinson, assistant commissioner for CHSAA. “The trend started maybe two or three years ago,” Robinson said. “All states were losing officials or not able to keep up with the demand for them in schools.”

The number of officials qualified to work at CHSAA competitions dropped from 5,000 to 4,300 in the past three years, Robinson said. “That’s very significant, and I don’t know if we have enough research to say why.”

Former officials give him numerous reasons for leaving the field: retirement, new careers, moves, other commitments, harassment.

Matthew Thornton, a contract umpire who has worked in Aurora for seven years, said officials need to have flexible schedules and thick skin to make it.

“The numbers of us are dropping for sure,” Thornton said. “Whether it’s umpires not getting paid enough or taking a lot of back talk and cussing from parents and players and coaches. Sometimes, if we make the wrong call or they don’t agree on a call, then players tend to take it personally and take it out on the umpires. So they just walk away from it (officiating).”

He said, “I ask players all the time if they’re interested in umpiring, and I would say that about 80 percent of those people tell me, ‘No, I wouldn’t want to have people yelling at me all night.’”

Calling double headers for Aurora is Thornton’s side gig. He said he can earn about $300 a week if he works a few games a night a few times a week.

“If you make $58 calling varsity football and $43 for junior varsity, then you can get close to $100 in a three- or four-hour period,” Robinson said.