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Buying the Badge: The inaccessibility of soccer officiating in Minnesota

The cost of equipment and certification could be contributing to a referee shortage.

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Matthew Mills

When asked what they want to be when they grow up, there aren’t too many kids who answer that being a referee is their dream career. It’s perfectly understandable: They don’t want to be the person that opponents come together to hate. They don’t want to be confronted in front of thousands of people, nor do they want to be confronted alone at their car. They want glory, or at least popularity, from their choice. And it’s not like officials’ decisions are making SportsCenter’s Top 10 on a regular basis.

For all the negative sides off officiating, it’s no shocker that one out of three soccer referees in Minnesota are in their first year. That turnover rate is exceedingly high, meaning that the field relies on a constant influx of new recruits. Becoming an official in Minnesota is a difficult process that eliminates prospective referees who don’t really want the certification.

But what if they’re being eliminated because they can’t obtain the certification?

Ibson Referee
The referee signals a free kick as Minnesota United host Atlanta United on 3/31/18
Tim C McLaughlin

Officiating is hard stuff. Soccer is a unique sport in the raw distance covered by players—and of course, referees—during a match. There’s a physical component to reffing a soccer game that doesn’t necessarily apply to other sports.

The rules can be a challenge too. Try reading the 2017-2018 FIFA Laws of the Game and you’re unlikely to comprehend much. Effectively applying them is no easy task.

If the game-management side of officiating isn’t hard enough, the personnel-management aspects only add to the stack. Kids who play soccer aren’t usually an issue; they’ve got the best intentions (though the worst coordination sometimes negates that) and are playing for the purity of the game—or just because their parents are making them. But too many coaches want to be Jose Mourinho for the day and too many spectators have forgotten that professional soccer isn’t played between eighteen twelve-year-olds on a bumpy pitch each Sunday morning.

There are still people who are crazy enough to join the ranks of officials each year though. Some do it to stay connected to the game once they’re done playing, while others want to keep in shape. There is also a group (mostly younger ones) who do it for the money.

And there is decent money to be had. Referees can expect to begin earning around $20 per game, but as they pick up higher-level age groups and matches, that number can be closer to $40 or $50. A weekend-long tournament can easily yield a couple hundred dollars. Standing in the middle of a few soccer games each week is a great high-school or part-time job for many refs, and it certainly beats standing behind the counter of a fast-food restaurant.

That money doesn’t come right away though.

Peterborough United v Northampton Town - Sky Bet League One Photo by Pete Norton/Getty Images

One of the side effects of Minnesota’s official turnover rate is a perpetual shortage of referees. Just ask an assignor how they’re feeling during youth soccer season. Games may have to be rescheduled or played with a short-handed crew, neither of which are anything close to ideal. Soccer officials are constantly in demand.

A column in the March issue of Soccer Times, a magazine put together by the Minnesota Youth Soccer Association, discusses the trends. It cites data from the Minnesota State Referee Committee (MNSRC), which shows that there were 4,529 certified referees in the state in 2017. Of those officials, 3,182 were under the age of 18, the bulk falling in the 14-17 bracket. Only 53% of the youth referees were returning.

The financials and complicated process make it easy to see why officiating is struggling.

To officiate youth soccer matches in the United States, a referee needs at least a USSF Grade 8 certification. That process is run by the MNSRC, and includes the following (in required order of completion):

Payment of a $20 (non-refundable) “state administrative fee”

Payment of a $40 (varying refund possibilities) fee for registration with US Soccer

Completion of 22 online modules and related quizzes, aimed to take at least 7-8 hours

Attendance at an 8 hour clinic (only offered at certain times of the year)

Passage of the USSF Grade 8 Exam at the end of the clinic

The upfront fees may not be much to some prospective referees, but to others (and their families), they may be discouraging. The payments continue even after certification:

Referee “starter kit” containing basic shirt, shorts, socks (with incorrect design displayed on website), whistle, flags, notebook and cards | $70

Additional shirts (in case of color conflict) | $30-48 each

Primarily black shoe or soccer cleat (expected, though not required) | $30+

Assuming a new referee paid enough to be adequately prepared for their first year, they are more than $150 in the hole. Sure, that money will be earned back over time, but that initial investment can be a challenge for some, especially if a young official is expected to contribute to the start of their job or to their family’s income.

Like any good fisher, the officiating process has mastered the processof continually reeling in. USSF periodically updates their referee uniform every ten years or so, and the latest refresh was released for last year. Referees are expected to be wearing the latest gear, preferably the “proper” designs sold by US Soccer. This meant that all returning officials had to purchase new shirts and socks last season, or risk a loss of credibility or punishment.

Referees must also re-certify each year. This process includes the $60 in fees, plus five hours of online training.

Sevilla FC v Bayern Muenchen - UEFA Champions League Quarter Final Leg One Photo by Adam Pretty/Getty Images

One of the anticipated parts of officiating is transportation. Referees must be able to punctually arrive at their assignments and, for their own safety, promptly depart after. Even if they pick up games with their local club, refs don’t always have field choice, and a small radius of availability can greatly limit assignments. If a referee is reliant on a ride that can’t be planned far out in advance, they risk having to turn back game assignments, which quickly drops their standing with an assignor.

The MNSRC’s website doesn’t obviously mention any financial aid offerings or accomodations; its monetary contributions are an expectation.

The Soccer Times column says that teenage officials aren’t “highly capable.” But it also cites the need for young referees to create a pipeline. Just as with soccer players, soccer officials need to develop into their craft as well.

As more and more attention surrounds the “pay-to-play” system of American youth soccer, there is a problem that has grown in tandem: the cost of officiating the beautiful game. In the same way that expensive registration and competition costs can deter players, Minnesota’s referee certification can be a barrier for prospective officials.