Ref, umpire shortage worsened by pandemic


They enforce the rules of the game and keep players safe, but officials for baseball and soccer are hard to come by these days.

The Manitoba Soccer Association (MSA) and Baseball Manitoba are facing umpire and referee shortages. Both organizations are feeling the effects of limited recruiting opportunities because of the coronavirus pandemic.

<p>JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS files</p><p>A shortage of soccer referees in the province has lead to the creation of Referee Task Force.</p>


A shortage of soccer referees in the province has lead to the creation of Referee Task Force.

“There’s always been a shortage of referees in amateur sport in this province and Canada for that matter,” said MSA executive director Hector Vergara. “The issue now is that it’s just becoming a bigger problem.”

Vergara released a statement through the MSA Wednesday night, announcing a Referee Task Force is being created.

The statement said there are about 89 senior and 216 youth referees in the province, down from approximately 120 and 400 in 2019. It added while referees are lost every year, the pandemic impacted its ability to properly train and replace those moving on.

Soccer clubs in all age groups in the province are facing scenarios where games are played with a non-trained volunteer official or in some cases, none at all.

Vergara described the situation as a “vicious cycle,” where referees can work two games a day, but if they’re overworked it can lead to injuries, further reducing available personnel. He’s also concerned that because the number of senior referees is so small, it will be hard for them to make time to mentor young officials.

“People would say to me ‘send them to referee versus sending them to mentor somebody else’ because they want to see as many games covered with a referee as possible,” he said. “The priority right now is to get the games covered as much as possible, which means the development suffers.”

Baseball Manitoba’s executive director Jason Miller said there are currently 471 umpires in the province compared to 590 in 2019. He hasn’t seen any cancellations because of the shortage, but some games are being played with one umpire instead of two.

“Ultimately it’s the rainouts and the rescheduling of games that’s causing the most frustration, not so much the shortage of umpires right now,” said Miller.

However, vice-president, umpire development Ashton Liskie said there could be consequences to this approach.

Liskie assigns umpires for the Manitoba Junior and Senior baseball leagues, where umpires are older and have more experience. He said the strain is being felt at the community club level of baseball, where many umpires are young and may even be getting their first taste of the job.

“The poor kid or poor girl or poor boy is out there by themselves,” said Liskie. “They have both teams, both sets of parents, both coaching staffs all against… one umpire and that could just turn them off from umpiring after one game.”

“I’m not saying it happens every game, but the possibility is there,” he added.

Liskie added that a one-game suspension will be issued to coaches that are ejected in U18 leagues and younger.

Recruiting new officials is a key step moving forward in both sports, but it’s easier said than done.

Liskie said some U18 teams require players to get certified and umpire two games within their region. It’s a strategy he said would be a “perfect way to put a Band-Aid on the cut” if more teams took a similar approach.

Vergara hopes it will be a joint effort in the soccer community, where its players encourage their friends to step up and get certified, adding the MSA hopes to receive feedback from those interested in becoming referees.

“We’ll have to work together to resolve it long term. In the short term let’s try and get through the season the best we can,” said Vergara. “We’ll do our very best to get as many people who are available on a particular day to do a game that they’re assigned.”

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