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ODU's Ridinger Leads Large Study Looking for Ways to Keep Officials in the Game

By Brendan O'Hallarn

Lynn Ridinger saw officiating as a way to stay active in sports.

A former scholarship field hockey player at Central Michigan, Ridinger refereed lacrosse and field hockey for almost 20 years.

Now an associate professor of sport management at Old Dominion University, Ridinger gave up officiating three years ago when she took up the role of department chair, and because hip surgery made it difficult to keep up with the young athletes on the field. "As referees, we keep getting older, but the players are forever 15 and seem to get faster every year," she said with a smile.

Ridinger's story is far from unique. Amateur organizations for every sport across North America are struggling to keep a full complement of officials. "In many leagues, games have to be rescheduled or cancelled because they don't have enough referees," Ridinger said.

In one of the largest research studies of amateur officials conducted in North America, Ridinger and researchers at three other universities attempted to determine what attracts individuals to officiating, why they continue to officiate, what might cause them to quit and how new volunteers can be coaxed into taking up the vocation.

"There is growing interest in research on referee recruitment, retention and attrition," said Ridinger, who has been at Old Dominion since 2000. "In addition to the shortage of officials, why aren't we getting new ones to sign up? This issue looks to get a lot worse."

As part of a series of studies, Ridinger and her research team - which includes Jacob Tingle of Trinity University, Stacy Warner of East Carolina University and Kyungun Ryan Kim of the University of Texas - collected survey data from more than 3,000 officials in North Carolina and Virginia.

Their insights could be invaluable for leagues looking to keep the necessary roster of officials to run their games and tournaments. "Officials are one of the hidden things that sports couldn't run without. If officials are doing their jobs well, no one notices them at all," Ridinger said. "But administrators of every sport are facing a growing problem as the number of qualified sports officials continues to decline."

For a study recently presented at the Global Sport Business Association conference, the responses of nearly 2,500 referees to five open-ended questions were analyzed. The researchers found that people become officials to stay involved with their sport and because they love being part of competitive events - also the primary reason officials continue to suit up.

According to the survey responses, the physical limitations of age and injury are the most likely reason officials quit. Since 35 percent of the officials who responded to the survey are between the ages of 50 and 59, this trend will likely accelerate, Ridinger said.

"We definitely need to figure out how we can attract more young officials, and keep them in."

There are worrisome trends about referee retention in the study as well. Nearly one third of survey respondents suggest a lack of respect on the field is the biggest problem for officials, followed by the politics of officiating in their sporting association (at 20 percent). This is where everyone involved in amateur sport, from coaches to parents, can play a role helping retain officials.

Strategies suggested to help recruit and retain officials included increasing pay, improving training, providing mentors, reducing politics, and demanding more respect. "We need to attract more young people into officiating and not drive them away because of combative coaches and fans," Ridinger said.

In addition to this analysis of motives for officiating, Ridinger and her colleagues developed a referee retention scale to predict which factors will entice officials to stay in the game rather than hang up the whistle.

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