'There's still quite a bit of work to do:' Official shortage a growing concern heading into new athletic year
Longtime local signal caller Mark Gulseth expressed his concerns with the official shortage around the state and how it will impact prep sports in the lakes area.
DETROIT LAKES – Craig Richie, an umpire in the Fargo-Moorhead area, stood in the heat of summer for three straight days behind the plate and down the first-base line at Matson Field in Moorhead.
Richie has officiated games for decades and was looking for a lighter load this year. However, by the end of the Sub-State 14 Legion baseball tournament, he had called his 105th game.
Richie is just one of many impacted by a nationwide official shortage. And with the fall season right around the corner, longtime local signal-caller Mark Gulseth fears it'll get worse before it gets better.
"It definitely impacts our area," he said. "Similar to the other areas and sports around the state, we just don't have enough officials going into it. If you do happen to get a younger official into it, a lot of times, they happen to quit after a year or two for various reasons. A lot of it is they don't want the hassle of dealing with fans. If they're younger, they have a lot of stuff going on in their life as well. But we're definitely feeling it. As an area signer, if somebody wanted to work every single day in the summer, we could make it happen. There's no shortage of games."
One of the main reasons fewer officials opt to call games is the harassment from teams and spectators. Despite many efforts to treat umpires and referees with respect, Gulseth believes there's a lot of work to be done.
"It's definitely gotten worse," Gulseth said of how officials are treated. "It's not every time. It's a select few times where it gets bad. But you just have the feeling more people feel like they have the right to say whatever they want at games. They feel they've purchased their ticket, and that gives them the right to run down officials. It has definitely gotten worse over the last 20 years."
The lakes area isn't immune to outlandish behavior. In January, a 45-year-old fan at a Lake Park-Audubon basketball game threw a bag of popcorn at a referee before grabbing the official's whistle and shirt. He was charged with 5th-degree assault and misdemeanor disorderly conduct.
"There's still quite a bit of work to do," Gulseth said. "I think cases like the one that happened last winter in Lake Park are becoming more common across the nation. It might not be so common in our area, but I read about those instances happening to officials and them being attacked. I think that's becoming more commonplace, which is sad."
The disrespect towards officials is a problem in all sports, but Gulseth believes it's at its worst on the basketball court.
"The fans feel they have the right to say whatever they want to the officials,” he said. “It's not every single time, but it's more often than it should be. It's the constant action of basketball, and it's a very emotional game. The fans being that close make them feel like they're part of the game, and I think that plays a big role."
Football games are being pushed away from Friday nights in many areas around the state because schools can't find officials. Some teams are scheduling games on Wednesday and Thursday nights so referees can work multiple games each week.
"It started happening in our area for football last fall," Gulseth said. "Fosston played games on Thursday night just for the reason of finding officials. I think we're going to see more of that to come. Baseball and softball can use any day of the week in the spring and summer, so we haven't seen it as much there."
Gulseth hopes the increased pay for officials will help spike interest in the coming years. Because the demand is so high, so is the rate.
"The pay has gotten better over the past couple of years," Gulseth said. "Nobody goes into it strictly for the pay. It does help, but that's not the sole reason why people do this. But we lost a few officials from last year to this year because they didn't want to deal with parents yelling at them the entire game."
For Gulseth, being an official is more than staying close to the sports he loves. He takes pride in his craft and strives to be the best every time he steps on the field.
"As an athlete, you're competitive, and you want to perfect your game. It's the same for umpires," Gulseth said. "You want to be part of that perfect game. You want to be part of that game where everything goes well. One team wins, and one team loses every time, and you're part of it. Hopefully, you call a perfect game and try to improve."
"The Minnesota State High School League's website has really good directions for how to get involved. If you want to umpire baseball and softball games in the summer and not necessarily be certified, you can contact someone like me or other area signers."
For more information on calling games in the Detroit Lakes area, contact Gulseth at email@example.com.