Steve Kurzer concedes that his view may be a bit skewed.
He understands that he may be in the minority in believing that his passion for soccer, his love for the sport, more than makes up for how physically demanding and stressful it can be to officiate as many matches as he is asked to work.
But as one of just 32 members of the Central Oregon Soccer Officials Association, Kurzer is well aware of the organization’s problem: down in numbers, up in games needed to cover.
“This year has been very difficult,” says Kurzer, 51, now in his 16th year with the COSOA and the association’s current president. “Our numbers are certainly down this year. And a couple of schools, for example La Pine, didn’t always field boys and girls soccer teams but do now. A few years ago, there was no Ridgeview. And now we have two Ridgeview varsity and two Ridgeview JV teams. Things like that dilute our ratio.”
Over the past few years, the number of soccer officials has dwindled — not just in Central Oregon but statewide. According to Peter Weber, an Oregon School Activities Association assistant executive director, there are 476 certified soccer referees in Oregon this year, down from 518 a year ago.
In Central Oregon, the COSOA’s current total of 32 officials has decreased from “the 40 to 50 range” a few years ago, according to COSOA commissioner Leslie Evoy.
While that may not seem like a drastic decline, consider that the local association, which covers 11 high schools in the area, aims to assign two officials to youth and high school subvarsity matches and three for varsity contests.
“Having enough officials has always been an issue for us,” says Evoy, who is in her fourth year as commissioner, noting how even more demanding the task of assigning referees has become since the opening of Ridgeview High in 2012 and the recent addition of boys varsity soccer at La Pine. “As teams get added, the number of schools we have to serve has increased and the number of officials has not really seen that same growth.”
Because the supply of soccer officials is not keeping up with the growing demand, the local organization several years ago requested for boys and girls contests (primarily involving Intermountain Conference schools) to be stacked for games scheduled on Tuesdays and Thursdays — typically the busiest days of the week. What has resulted are boys/girls doubleheaders. And with that change, COSOA refs double up assignments, officiating both contests each day.
“We use every single official we have that’s breathing and that’s available,” Evoy says. “Seriously, our Tuesdays and Thursdays are so huge for us. We have instances where a ref will get injured or a family issue comes up or a job (conflict arises). … That’s just the nature of the beast, and we just deal with it as it comes.”
When things get unmanageably tight, Evoy asks local athletic directors to consider rescheduling some games. Take the Summit-Ridgeview boys/girls doublehader, for example, a match originally slated for Tuesday, Sept. 30. Due to a high volume of contests that day, Evoy made a request for a change. Summit athletic director Gabe Pagano and Ridgeview’s Andy Codding obliged, moving the Storm-Ravens matchups to a day earlier. Evoy says such requests are made only when absolutely necessary — but the need, unfortunately, does arise.
“I would say soccer has been the most challenging,” Pagano says, referring to the decreasing number of officials. “That’s what prompted the stacking of these games (so that one set of officials can work two matches). It seems like soccer has been a little bit more demanding. … What we’ve done, in knowing that numbers are going to be low, is we’ve tried to be creative with our schedule in how we can make that work, and stacking these games is one way to do that.”
In his four years as the Summit athletic director, Pagano says, the downward trend in numbers of officials has only worsened. And that is not just in soccer, he adds, but all sports — nationwide. He attributes the decline primarily to difficulty in recruiting.
Kurzer and Evoy agree, adding how the COSOA is lacking officials ages 20 to 40. Evoy believes that shortage can be attributed to the association’s inability to retain young officials. That could be, she says, because officials increasingly face confrontation with players, coaches and parents. It also could be, as Kurzer points out, because those younger officials are beginning new phases of their lives that bring added demands on their time.
“What we need, especially in a sport like soccer that’s so physically demanding on the officials, is younger guys,” Kurzer says. “And of course our younger guys, they might be in college or just starting their jobs and careers and don’t have that job flexibility, or they may be starting families so they have younger families that need their attention. The male or female in his or her physical prime probably has a lot more on their plate than someone north of 50 (years old) like myself.
“It’s a hard sell when someone is just starting their young career and/or trying to get their young family off the ground,” he continues. “While that is our ideal demographic, they just have a lot going on. And I get it.”
Job flexibility is key, Evoy emphasizes. Officials in the COSOA have full-time careers ranging from software engineering to construction to horse breeding to, in Kurzer’s case, the legal field. All of them make “huge sacrifices” to alter their schedules, Evoy says, in order to cover each game, something the commissioner requests of her officials before each season even if it is “a big thing to ask of someone.”
“We’re holding our own,” Evoy says, comparing COSOA’s situation with officials associations in the Willamette Valley. “We’ve got our head above water.”
Despite how much time Kurzer sacrifices in balancing a full-time career and officiating, he perseveres. He acknowledges the physical toll: “Once upon a time, a few years back, I could handle two or three games in a day,” he says. “Now it seems like I need two or three days in between games.”
But the 16-year COSOA veteran says being a soccer referee is more than worth the sacrifices.
You officiate because you love it, Kurzer says. It’s just what he enjoys doing — and he considers himself blessed to have the time to fulfill his passion.
“I have, through the years, established so many rewarding relationships with fellow referees, with athletic directors, coaches and players,” Kurzer says. “The game time itself can get a little intense, but the ride to and from the game with my fellow referees, the social crosscurrents off the field when we have the opportunity to get to know some of these men and women that work so hard to run a sports program, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
—Reporter: 541-383-0307, email@example.com.