Applications to officiate HS football declining

John Mantica’s high school football officiating routine has developed over the last 31 years.

He starts examining film of the teams he’s going to referee Monday and sends a quiz to his crews at the South Gulf Football Officials Association. On Thursday, he packs up his gear.

Mantica leaves his human resources office around 4 p.m. every Friday, tosses gear into his BMW Z4 and drives to his game. Arriving 90 minutes before kickoff, he will talk with his crew, ready the field, check game balls, stretch and talk with the team captains and coaches.

Over the following two to three hours, he will make good calls. He will sometimes miss others. He will probably hear players, coaches, fellow officials and himself called things he can’t repeat. And at the end of the night, his wish is to have called a good enough game where no one noticed him.

“People think we’ll be perfect out there,” said Mantica, who is the President of the SGFOA and gets home around midnight most Friday nights. “And we’re not.”

Like most officials associations across the country, Mantica has also has to deal with an evaporating pool of quality officials. The SGFOA once had more than 100 members. It’s down to 80. The association lost 20 following last season and recruited just 15 new members for this season.

“One of the things that has had an impact on our associations has been the continued growth of schools,” Fort Myers head football coach Sam Sirianni said. “And the number of schools they have to cover. You put on top of that the fact that, like anything else, through attrition they’ve had to deal with training new officials.”

Officiating does not pay much, usually $65-$80 for a varsity game, nor does it offer much in the way the way of consistency. The SGFOA serves 24 area high schools from Lake Placid to Port Charlotte and all of Lee County. They also serve JV and freshman games across the region.

The Greater Naples Officials Association, which has about 65 members, covers Collier County public high schools, private schools like Community School of Naples and charter schools such as Marco Island Academy.

Over the last five seasons, the Florida High School Athletic Association reported downturns in the overall amount of officials patrolling the sidelines, including losses of 49 officials in 2013-14, and 55 in 2014-15, before an uptick of 25 officials in 2015-16.

Recruiting new talent

The FHSAA requires a minimum of six officials for each football game – five on the field and one clock operator. For the SGFOA and its 11 crews, that stretches thin its member population across multiple counties every night. In Naples, that puts at least 54 members on the ground every Friday.

“This isn’t just a problem in Fort Myers,” Mantica said. “It’s a problem nationwide and a problem for all sports. Unless you have a good supply of officials, you put people out there who are less than stellar, and you’re only as strong as your weakest link out there.”

The Naples association said it doesn’t put first-year officials in varsity games unless absolutely necessary to preserve the quality of officiating, but according to Mantica, it has happened for the South Gulf association at times.

Recognizing the dwindling number of referees and their increasing median age, the GNOA adopted an aggressive recruiting strategy. The group has between 60-65 football officials, including 10 first-year referees. It’s enough to cover the busiest of nights.

“We’re OK, but we could use more numbers,” said Robb Mackett, GNOA’s football assignor. “We made a concerted effort to try to get more officials, to get younger officials … we’re making tremendous progress.”

The SGFOA posts fliers on the FHSAA website and pushes recruitment through word of mouth.

Some coaches like Sirianni recommend officiating to former players. It’s a way to stay in the game, he said.

“Talking to the top guys in the association,” Sirianni said, “they’re doing everything they can to get an influx of young blood on board. Even with us, there will come a day when the younger guys will take over. Our association does as good a job that can be expected.”

Mantica said he would like to see younger officials join the organization to help add energy to the culture. The average age of the association’s officials is nearly 50 years old.

“I’m 58,” Mantica said. “I can’t keep up as well with 16-, 17-year-old kids anymore. It would be great if the average age of our organization were around 35. But it’s difficult attracting people who will get booed by people and yelled at by coaches.”

The organization is mostly white and male, but lists 22 percent of its base as African-American and Hispanic. The association had two female members last year, but they moved over the summer to Tallahassee and Pennsylvania.

Mantica believes the association reflects the larger demographic area of Lee County. And he says he’ll never turn away an individual wanting to become an official. But he also maintains the best officials should be used on game days.

“I want to make sure we put the best officials on the field,” he said. “But there’s no question we will do everything we can to put people in uniform who want to be out there.”

Balancing the pay gap

The cost of becoming an official can be a burden to some. Mantica estimated it takes about $350 to begin from the ground up – background check, FBI fingerprint, state and local association fees and official’s gear. Then there’s gas as some games can be more than an hour away from home.

“We’re not in it to get rich,” Mantica says, “but every dollar helps.”

The FHSAA regulates its officials get paid in flat fees based on the level of competition – $65 for regular-season varsity games and as much as $80 in state playoff games.

If there’s an ideal model for how officials want to see payment adjust, Texas provides a blueprint.

The University Interscholastic League, which oversees 70 activities and 2.2 million interscholastic participants each year in six conferences, structures its pay to football officials differently than most governing bodies.

Gates with as little as $250 revenue would need to pay officials $60, while receipts as high as $20,500 would yield a $135 cut for officials. Each additional $5,000 of gate revenue would yield $30 dollars for crews working those games.

And in Texas, where crowds sometimes yield as many as 10,000 fans, pay can yield a return on investment for those working high-profile games.

Increased pay does not always equal increased interest. The Dallas Football Officials Association reported that it’s down about 100 officials, a 20-percent decline, for this season.

In Ohio, officials are paid as much as $140 in regional playoff games, according to the Ohio High School Athletic Conference, and as much as $190 for state contests. In Pennsylvania, pay is more in line with Florida, ranging from $65 to $90 per night – JV games pay $51 per contest.

And if given the chance to move up to college football, the benefits skyrocket – two former SGFOA officials, Jeff Rice and Larry Rose, have made it as high as the NFL ranks, and 10 others have been promoted to the college level.

Some major college football games pay as much as $2,500 to $3,000.

Gaining experience

Some officials request to not officiate varsity contests until they get fully acclimated to the speed of the game. That includes 27-year-old Mak Mars, who’s heading into his third year officiating football.

“They asked me to become a varsity official,” Mars said, “But I decided to remain at the JV and freshman level. I didn’t think I was ready for it yet.”

Each year, members of the SGFOA are required to renew their membership and pass a 50-question multiple-choice test. Officials need to score a 75 percent to be used for varsity games. Officials with years of experience are ranked in a three-tiered system, with Level 1 being the most accomplished.

Over the summer, officials attend as many as two classroom training seminars per week. They also attend on-field instruction from experienced officials.

“We concentrate on rules more than mechanics,” Mantica said. “We also officiated a couple of scrimmages.”

The Collier officials group has a minor-league training system. The GNOA officiates for the Southwest Florida Youth Football League as well as First Baptist’s youth program, the Beacons. New officials hone their flag-throwing skills in youth games alongside veteran officials and even officiating coaches from the GNOA before working Friday nights.

The GNOA also holds training sessions for its football officials. Mackett said the group held 19 classes last year and 10 this year before the start of the season. The sessions are for rookie and veteran officials.

Ida Baker athletic director and football coach Brian Conn said his school has a few elective classes taught by Joseph Haskill, who officiates at night after his teaching job. They’re meant to recruit younger officials.

“It’s a feeder program for them,” Conn said.

This summer, Fort Myers resident Chris Dougherty searched for the term “Becoming an official in Florida” on Google.

He had one child in college and another soon to be. His wife was back in school. Doherty, an employee of the South Florida Water Management District, wanted to pick up a hobby. He is 48, 6-foot-4 and a former lineman for Fort Lauderdale High. He wanted to get back on his feet.

He found an advertisement for the SGFOA on the FHSAA website.

“I’ve been involved as a fan,” he said. “And I’ve always thought about becoming an official to stay in the game. So when my family life eased up a little bit, it allowed me the time.”

Dougherty signed up. He was pegged as an umpire, who stands right between the linebackers on the field.

His first assignment was a JV game on Thursday.

“You could get hit,” Dougherty said. “Once they said that, I looked into it. And to be honest, I liked it.”- by Cory Mull and Adam Fisher, Naples Daily News (Florida)