There is a new concern with youth sports, and it may impact when your child plays the game they love.
Officials said there's a shortage for referees, and it could be changing those traditions here in Western Pennsylvania.
The lights, the band and the cold crisp fall air can only mean one thing.
"Friday nights in Western Pennsylvania, it's definitely football time," said Norman Hargraves of Scott Township.
But what many consider a tradition in communities all over our area, could change – and soon. It's because of a massive shortage of referees in the state.
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"In some of our sports, we are barely hanging on," said Bill Sinning, of WPIAL Male Officials Representatives.
It's not just football; it's all youth sports from high school to younger leagues, especially in growing sports like soccer and lacrosse. The Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) confirmed to Channel 11 there are 1,400 fewer refs and officials than just 10 years ago.
Sinning has worn the whistle for 47 years for WPIAL games. He said this is the most critical he's ever seen it.
"We are at the point where we barely covered the games that we have," said Sinning. "We no longer have the next woman or the next man up."
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So, what's behind the shortage? The answer is simple. Some older officials are simply retiring, but many are just quitting, mostly because of the abuse from fans and players.
"There are confrontations with the officials," said 20-year football referee Steve Hall. "There are actually laws in place now."
Hall and Sinning both said basketball is one of the worst sports for parents because the court is so close to the fans. Sinning cited one Friday night during football games this fall, officiating crews threw out 16 players and coaches across the WPIAL.
"The conduct of the people who watch our games, it verges on… it's hard even to describe," said Sinning.
The shortage is getting so bad, the WPIAL has considered cutting the number of football officials from six to five a game. Hall doesn't support that move.
"How we manage the game was six guys, that is completely different with five. I really don't want that to go away because I think then you know you're taking away from the game," said Hall.
And moving some traditional Friday night games to Saturday, so fewer crews are needed.
"Saturday afternoons games are a lot different," said Hargraves. "It's a different field, different vibe."
The solution to just recruit more officials isn't as easy as it sounds. There are pushes all over the area to get younger refs in the game, but it comes with a catch. Hall worries with the shortage as bad as it is, some may be asked to do too much too soon.
"Because of the shortage now, we're putting them out on the field before they're maybe 100% ready," said Hall.
That could lead to questionable calls and angry players, coaches and parents — a vicious cycle.
Some area schools are taking steps to stop that. Parents and players at Chartiers-Houston must sign a code of conduct.
Any violation comes with a five-game suspension.
"Just as important as their physical papers, they're not allowed to participate until that's signed," said Chartiers-Houston Athletic Director, Kurt Kesneck.
But not all schools do that and unless more start to, veteran referees who love what they do fear the worst is yet to come.
Sinning said he sees this problem only getting worse next year when officials must renew their clearances, something that's done every five years.
The biggest challenge your family might see right now is when it comes to rescheduling games. Sport schedulers said they do it when the referees can be there, no so much the players or families.
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