With the Ohio Valley Athletic Conference expanding its number of member schools in past years, there remains an ever-increasing need for qualified sports officials at all levels with varsity, junior varsity, freshman and middle school participation. The Times Leader contacted area officials as well as OVAC Commissioners who addressed the issue of recruiting and maintaining an acceptable base of referees and umpires mandatory for athletic events to be conducted. Among topics discussed were primary reasons individuals seek to become officials; the necessary steps required to become certified; and financial rates earned at various levels. According to OVAC Basketball Commissioner John Howell, there have been dramatic changes regarding those seeking applications and training. “Over the years, our training classes have become much smaller with older adults seeking to enter the field,” Howell noted. “The average age of a varsity OVAC basketball official has nearly doubled since I began 40 years ago. And because more people are getting into officiating at and older age, their careers will be invariably shorter.” Howell points out the Conference annually advertises the need for prospective officials via area newspapers. Additionally, he authors letters to varsity coaches requesting the names of former players whom may be interested in entering the field. While Howell notes a percentage of incoming officials’ candidates apply as a means of supplementing their incomes, he cautions qualified officials must possess a comprehensive understanding of the sport; maintain a professional looking appearance; and be in generally excellent physical condition. “I think it’s a fact, too many officials are in it just for financial purposes. Additionally, many more officials may require shift work for their primary occupation and thus, are only available on a part-time basis.” In terms of financial compensation, Howell notes rates are negotiated with the OVAC every four years. The board is currently is currently in the first year of a four-year period which extends through the 2014-15 season. Varsity officials can expect a $70 fee with $45 paid for junior varsity; $30 for freshman games and $25 for junior high. “Basically, there is a more in-demand need for officials today because more lower level games are being added each season.” Greg Chesonis, long-time OHSAA and WVIAC volleyball official and rules interpreter, noted the area board attracts some 6-8 applicants each year. “This is a good number considering the attrition rate and non-renewals of existing officials with 3 years or more experience.” he indicated. Chesonis reports each year all local colleges and universities along with the general public are notified of training classes in the area. Currently, the West Virginia/Ohio Volleyball Officials Association sponsors two classes in the Wheeling and Weirton/Steubenville areas. As prescribed by the Ohio High School Athletic Association, a mandatory training program is conducted consisting of 26 hours of instruction. Incoming candidates must be at least 18 years old; be self-confident, determined and decisive. Chesonis cites reasons officials both opt to remain and drop out of the profession. Officials choose to stay involved to remain close to the game, the challenge to learn something new; the camaraderie with other officials, opportunities to supplement income. Officials may choose to leave based on bad experiences with fans, relatively low pay, and the idea of being away from home several hours most week nights. Steve Wojcik, the OVAC’s Baseball Commissioner, noted the OVAC works with six different boards during baseball and softball season. “Overall, I have not heard many negatives in regard to a severe shortage of umpires; however, it is entirely possible respective boards can be pressed pretty thin on a great spring day when in excess of 40 schools are scheduled to play,” Wojcik stated. Wojcik says each board is responsible for recruiting new members and also training these individuals. A majority of both varsity baseball and softball games feature 4:30 to 5 p.m. start times with Saturday doubleheaders normally beginning between 11 a.m. and 12 noon. Financial compensation is varied. Wojcik says the OVAC is currently in the second year of a 2-4 year agreement. Varsity umpires earn $55 per game with the junior varsity rate at $38. The OVAC’s Commissioner for Football Officials is Don Zinni. “While we’re pleased with the number of certified officials currently working, there’s never always enough of good, quality officials,” he observed. “I’m regularly in contact with coaches as we seek new candidates to come into our boards,” Zinni added. “We (Wheeling/Weirton Boards) offer a two-year training program with new officials beginning on lower levels.” Zinni speaks highly of the OVAC’s current members, pointing out he assigned 10 area officials to the prestigious Herbstreit Classic featuring many of Ohio’s and the country’s elite high school programs. “Our board is a unique mix of both veteran and young officials,” Zinni stated. ‘We’re always looking to expand our officiating base — both locally and regionally. Officiating can be a very rewarding experience. It certainly was for me during my working years. I encourage any former athlete of young person with good knowledge of the game to consider becoming involved.” Interested candidates can contact Zinni through the OVAC website or consider applying when public notice is made available.
OHIO?VALLEY?Athletic Conference basketball official Matt Hissom works a game earlier this season.