David Sturm spends countless hours on fields and in gymnasiums throughout north central Missouri so high schoolers have the opportunity to compete in sports and learn valuable life lessons.

A common fixture on ball diamonds and basketball courts for more than four decades, and on football fields for 38 years, Sturm has a passion for officiating games for the Missouri State High School Activities Association.

“I've always had a great interest in sports and love sports. While I was not a very good ballplayer in my youth and often sat on the bench, I found that officiating is a way that kept me up close and personal in the game itself,” Sturm said. “It's worked out well for me over the years. It provides me good exercise, helps keep my mind going and being sharp. Even though I'm 68, officiating makes me feel like I'm 28 years old on most days.

“Officiating high school sports actually is very relaxing to me. I find it as a stress reliever from the things I go through with my main job as a certified public accountant. Many people may think it’s a profession that's very stressful because you see people hollering at an official over a certain call, but I don't find it that way at all.”

The Salisbury resident is among 50 percent of the state's high school officials who are at least 50 or older.

Many of those veteran officials are gradually aging out. Combined with the growth of student enrollments and the construction of more high schools, there is a serious need for additional game officials across Missouri.

MSHSAA recently has been taking a proactive approach in trying to recruit younger individuals to become officials.

According to Kenny Seifert, director of officiating, the purpose of the initiative is to bolster the state's officiating coffers and replenish a large number of older MSHSAA officials who will soon retire.

“There are two main reasons why many state high school associations across the country are experiencing a shortage of game officials. One of them is what I call aging out. We have a large percentage of our registered officials at MSHSAA that are above the age of 60, and at some point in time, as those individuals start to hang up their shoes, we do not have enough young officials to replace them,” Seifert said.

“Problem No. 2 is that as a community's population grows, schools grow. Twelve years ago in Columbia there were only two high schools (Hickman and Rock Bridge) and today Columbia also has Battle, Father Tolton Catholic and Columbia Independent School. Therefore, with these added schools, (there are) added levels and types of athletic competitions,” he added.

Prior to becoming an executive director with MSHSAA in July 2016, Seifert spent a dozen years serving as athletic director at Moberly High School and had officiated basketball games at both the high school and college level for nearly 14 years. Seifert also was the Moberly Area Community College men's head basketball coach from 1995-2001.

“Anyone looking for a unique way to contribute to the local community should consider becoming a licensed high school official. For individuals who played sports in high school, officiating is a great way to stay close to the sport after their playing days have ended. Officiating helps people stay in shape, expands their social and professional network, and offers part-time work that is flexible, yet pays. In fact, officiating is a form of community service, but with paid compensation,” Seifert said.

“Another benefit of officiating is that individuals become role models so that teenagers in the community can learn the life lessons that high school sports teach," he added. "Students learn to respect their opponents, the rules of the game and the importance of practicing good sportsmanship — thanks in part to those men and women who officiate.”

A look at the numbers

MSHSAA needs officials for the following sanctioned sports: 11-man and eight-man football, baseball, basketball, field hockey, lacrosse, soccer, softball, swimming and diving, track and field, volleyball, water polo and wrestling.

Many of these events are offered for both boys and girls, and some activities have freshman and junior varsity levels in addition to varsity. This compounds the need for a larger supply of officials.

“Subtract the dedicated men and women who officiate high school sports and competitive sports would no longer be organized — they would be chaotic,” Seifert said.

With Jefferson City, for example, in the process of constructing an additional high school, the need for more MSHSAA officials grows handily to meet the increasing needs.

Although the total number of registered officials of 7,894 documented by MSHSAA on April 1 for the 2018-19 school year is overall the largest in five years, labor numbers for some sports have dropped while others rise.

There were 1,305 football officials last fall, down 20 officials compared to the previous year, and in softball the recent number of 918 umpires is 32 fewer than the number registered during the 2017-18 school year, Seifert reported.

On the flip side, this past basketball season there were 2,251 referees, an increase of 50 from the previous campaign.

Seifert said with the recent shortage of football game officials, some St. Louis metro area schools were forced to cancel their Friday night football games and move them to a Thursday night or Saturday afternoon to accommodate officials.

Seifert explained while MSHSAA certifies people to officiate, each official acts as an independent contractor or they have the option to join a registered community association pool of officials, such as the Columbia Football Officials Association. Each school district across the state is responsible for scheduling game officials for their respective sporting events and may choose to work with a community association in doing so.

Also, the pay rate, along with travel expenses, for officiating games varies according to each school district or association.

Seifert said high school varsity football game officials will make a minimum of $100 per game. Basketball and baseball/softball officials who arrive to govern two games at the same site (varsity and JV, or boys/girls doubleheader) will be paid roughly between $100 to $130 total.

Recruiting schemes

In an effort to find new officials, Seifert has executed three recruiting initiatives, and by the end of next week a fourth will be added when he reaches out to challenge every high school athletic director across Missouri.

Here are the four MSHSAA recruiting initiatives shared by Seifert:

Four for one

The idea behind this initiative is that every four years current MSHSAA game officials and head coaches will be tasked with helping register one new official.

“In our attempts to continue to recruit, train and retain new officials, we are reaching out to the greatest resources we have and that's our game officials and head coaches,” Seifert said.

Officials are challenged to look for someone who has strong moral character and possesses excellent people skills to build rapport and relationships within the context of MSHSAA activities at any level.

Coaches are to recruit one student-athlete who played under their leadership, looking for a player who demonstrated a passion for their sport and has a desire to remain associated with it in some form or fashion after high school or college.

A call for first responders

This program reaches out to law enforcement officers, firefighters and EMS personnel to use their unique interpersonal and community service skills while supplementing their income by serving as a game official.

“For persons that serve the public through these means, there’s a common bond of being a member of a team and creating order out of chaos,” Seifert said. “Law enforcement, firefighters and EMS personnel have many of the characteristics that are required in the avocation of officiating: courage, confidence, discipline, focus, selflessness, decisiveness, fearlessness, and a complete and unwavering trust for their partner."

"Trade Your Stripes"

The “Trade Your Stripes” program targets the recruitment of military personnel and veterans, and it is modeled after a national foundation scheme named “Battlefields to Ballfields” established by Mike Pereira, former vice president of officiating in the NFL and current rules analyst for Fox Sports. This national program pays for uniforms and dues, equipment, training materials and insurance, and provides a mentor who will train and follow officials as they move up the ladder in their state.

“This program is an opportunity for military veterans to engage themselves in something that is unique, challenging, purposeful and financially rewarding. ... We are asking them to trade their military stripes into officiating stripes,” explained Seifert.

This initiative led about 70 people last year to become a MSHSAA official, he said. In addition, military veterans do not have to pay the annual $65 registration fee for their first year of officiating.

Athletic director's challenge

By the end of next week, Seifert plans to contact athletic directors across the state about MSHSAA's newest recruitment initiative. He intends to ask for their assistance to identify the best male and female athlete from their school's senior class who they feel possesses the skills and maturity to become a sports official.

The athletic director will be asked to spend time with each athlete and briefly share information about becoming an official. MSHSAA personnel, including Seifert, will follow up to further educate the young prospects.

For school administrators who participate, MSHSAA is providing each school two complimentary registrations to waive the annual $65 fee to become a certified official.

Addressing verbal abuse

In recent years, verbal abuse by overzealous parents, fans and occasionally coaches arguably has been a factor in keeping people away from officiating or MSHSAA officials choosing not to work at certain locations.

But Seifert is hopeful that potential verbal abuse will not diminish interest in becoming an official.

He believes the positives still outweigh the negatives.

According to a survey by the National Association of Sports Officials, more than 75 percent of all high school officials who quit say “adult behavior” is the primary reason they stopped, and 80 percent of all young officials hang up their stripes after less than three years of whistle blowing.

“We have to get back into our society where people are a little more sensitive and compassionate toward other people and not be so unruly,” Seifert said. “That's because at the end of the day we're talking about coaches in the game, the players in the game or the officials in the game. Everybody is trying to do their best.”

Seifert expressed that MSHSAA officials are trained to carry no grudges and to take each game one at a time.

But at some point, an official may simply come to the conclusion that “enough is enough” and quit.

“Statistics show that in college basketball that 96 percent of all calls made by officials are correct," Seifert said. "If there was a player that shot 96 percent from the floor or a baseball player that had a batting average of .960 at the plate, we would be talking about how great of an athlete that person is. But in officiating, we have a tendency to expect 100 percent. In officiating there is a phrase that goes something like this: It's the only vocation that exists where that position is expected to be perfect from the first day and get better from there.

“... This might be a reason why we don't have a lot of people officiating. You do have to be a little thick-skinned, so to speak, and (have) a really good feel about the sport you are officiating to be an effective game official.”

More than the scoreboard

Research confirms that high school activities instill a sense of pride in school and community, teach lifelong lessons such as the value of teamwork and self-discipline, and facilitate the physical and emotional development of those who participate.

If games go away because there are not enough officials, the loss will be greater than just a “loss” on the scoreboard.

It will be putting a dent in the future of communities across the state.