This is season No. 12 for Kevin Cleveland as a basketball official in southeast Michigan.
But because of the farm system of referees set up by the Farmington Hills resident, Cleveland's impact will help scholastic sports run smoothly for years to come. The Farmington Hills resident has recruited more than a half-dozen young officials to the vocation.
“For the younger kids, if that’s all they do, it’s a good little hustle for them,” said Cleveland, who worked a basketball game at North Farmington High School two weeks ago with nephew Chris Carter of Detroit and his friend Thomas Burrell of Southfield. “But I look at it to stay in shape and stay around the game.
“It makes a difference. If you talk about officials being old and stuff, then make a difference and come out.”
More stories of recruitment and leadership like Cleveland’s are needed statewide. Michigan High School Athletic Association assistant director Brent Rice is careful not to call the referee shortage in Michigan a “crisis,” but admits serious efforts to replenish the ref supply are necessary.
"I don’t think we’re at that point yet. And also, when you use those kind of terms, it’s almost like, ‘Well why would I want to get involved in it, you talk about how terrible it is,'" Rice said. "But I tell the guys at the local level that by the time it becomes a problem for them, it’s too late.”
The MHSAA suspended the winter season's remaining postseason tournaments indefinitely Thursday because of the coronavirus outbreak.
About a decade ago, MHSAA had about 12,500 registered officials, Rice said. That number is now down to under 10,000.
While there’s been a small increase in officials for emerging sports like girls lacrosse, competitive cheer, gymnastics, hockey and wrestling, two spring American staples are feeling the brunt of the crunch.
Rice said MHSAA lost 140 baseball umpires last year and 90 for softball.
“When you only have 1,600 of them, or 1,700, that’s a significant chunk,” Rice said.
That means another spring of last-minute headaches for Bob Czech, who schedules most referees and umpires for basketball, softball and baseball for Oakland County.
Czech has about 350 officials in the Southeastern Michigan Officials Association and said he works five to seven hours some days, making changes and scrambling to find officials after illnesses or work conflicts arise.
“There’s some days that are less difficult, but there’s nothing easy about it,” Czech said.
Another concerning number is the age of most of the officials.
“I’d say the average age of the guys I work with are 55 years old,” Czech said. “By the end of basketball season, these guys’ legs or knees start wearing down on them.”
Cleveland is 53 and is younger than the average official statewide.
“In the late '80s and early '90s, the average age that someone at the high school level got into officiating was 18 to 20. And currently, the average age that officials are getting in is closer to 40,” Rice said. “So that group that got in when they were 20, they’re getting out, just because they are aging out. Unfortunately the people that are getting in at 40 are aging out too.
"We’re just running into this situation of: We’re not getting them in young enough, so we’re getting them older and they’re staying shorter.
“That seems to be the main issue.”
One solution is grabbing athletes who just wrapped up their playing career, or even during it.
The regional official directors are trying to get the word out, including one who came to speak to varsity football athletes at the Lakes Valley Conference media day this August. The message is to stay involved after graduation, even earn extra bucks when you are in college.
Rice’s main initiative wants to hit students even younger.
The MHSAA’s Legacy Student Officials Program certifies high school students to work sub-varsity games, with Rice expanding the program this year to set up high school freshmen and sophomores to work middle school contests with experienced mentors.
The inexperience of those referees, coaches and even spectators creates a cocktail that can detract young officials though, making the mentorship aspect of the program even more important.
“You have all these people who have no experience, but yet you have all these people who expect everything to be perfect for a middle school contest out the gate," Rice said. "That’s a challenge that we had.”
Cleveland said he tries to tell young officials to ignore the noise.
“I’m trying to get these young guys going, but sometimes they can’t take the crowd and the coaches, the crowd can be brutal,” Cleveland said. “See if they can switch places with a referee and see if they can do it. It’s wide open to see if they can register as an official, so they can try it.”
There’s also a chance of advancement, with Cleveland noting Burrell now umpires in the minor leagues during baseball season. Rice umpired minor league baseball for 12 years before joining the MHSAA in 2018.
While those may be the exception to the rule, there’s money to be made as a decent side gig.
However, Rice notes that a strong overall economy is actually a pitfall in recruiting officials.
“When the economy is going pretty well, and unemployment is down, people have jobs and they don’t need these side jobs,” Rice said. “Officiating tends to be one of those. Unfortunately when the economy is going well, we see our numbers go down. And when it does poorly, people tend to gravitate toward it.”
Rice said MHSAA’s yearly registration fee for officials is $40 plus $16 per sport, among the lowest in the country.
The MHSAA does not set minimums or maximums for schools to pay officials. Rice estimated an official for an average basketball or football game statewide makes $65-70 per game, while baseball and softball umpires make $55-60.
Rice said lacrosse officials, where there’s a shortage, can make more money. It’s a local marketplace like anything else.
Rice said the Cascades Conference in south central Michigan had an officials shortage for football games last year, forcing them to move some games from Friday to Saturday.
Rice recommended they look at pay for officials and increased the rate by one-third.
“They had no problems this year staffing their Friday nights,” Rice said. “Schools are going to have to learn, they’re going to have to prioritize, and the officials need to be a part of that. Just like any other budgetary item that they have.”
Matt Schoch is a freelance writer.