CLEARWATER — For roughly three hours this past weekend, four high school football teams — host Clearwater Central Catholic, Keswick Christian, River Ridge and St. Petersburg Catholic — scrimmaged. They blocked. They tackled. They scored.
The outcomes, though, were not the main focus.
This exhibition was to provide live onfield training for the crews in the Sunshine Football Officials Association, which covers mostly Pinellas County schools. About 50 of the association’s officials voluntarily showed up. They were split into two groups, one calling the game with a clinician providing feedback and the rest going through classroom instructions.
“We’ve got a pretty dedicated group,” said John Taylor, a 35-year officiating veteran who is the president of the Sunshine Football Officials Association. “The pay could be better, but that’s not really what we’re entirely here for. This really is more of just having a love for the game.”
Taylor’s association continues to stay faithful despite a number of issues affecting officials — and schools— throughout the state.
The biggest issue is pay. The South Gulf Football Officials Association, which handles Lee County (Fort Myers area) and a few surrounding schools, threatened to boycott working football games unless they were paid more. On Monday, the Florida High School Athletic Association revoked the organization’s sanction, meaning it will no longer be able to officiate games that involve schools belonging to the state’s governing body for sports.
“It is our firm belief that no games will be canceled due to this,” said FHSAA spokesman Kyle Niblett, whose organization is working with other associations to provide officials in Lee County for football games. “Our staff has been relentlessly working with parties across the entire state to ensure student-athletes are not hurt by any work stoppage.”
The FHSAA announced last week that there will be an increase in pay for officials in all sports next school year. On Aug. 26, the FHSAA’s advisory committees for officials and athletic directors will meet to discuss fees for games, travel and other costs with referees.
“We’re going to look at the whole pay structure and whether it needs to be completely overhauled,” said Justin Harrison, an executive director with the FHSAA who supervises officials. “We surveyed schools this past year on what they spend. On the low end, it’s $15 million a year on officials. So we want to make sure we’re thorough and have something that we can work with for years down the road.”
Harrison said the goal is to have a pay scale in place by Jan. 1.
The FHSAA sets the maximum rate — $65 per game — that officials can make working varsity football games. The pay is then negotiated between the officials association and the school district. Factors such as travel can increase pay.
Taylor said officials in his association make $80, including travel, for varsity games. Those in the West Coast Officials Association, which handles primarily Hillsborough County, make $75 per game.
Both associations vowed to continue working while the FHSAA figured out pay raises.
“There are people who try to make a living doing this and for them it’s a big deal and we have to appreciate that,” said West Coast Officials Association president Greg Kaiser, who has been officiating for 35 years, 21 in Tampa. “But (a boycott) just seems illogical.
“The state has promised that they are going to have a fee increase for the 2020-21 season so that should be true. If not, then it would be reasonable to take actions against them. If they are working in good faith then that process should be allowed to continue. I don’t think you should strike if the people are actually working with you.”
The other issue is retaining officials. As of last week, two associations — East Coast and Treasure Coast — did not have enough officials registered with the state to cover every game. Niblett said the FHSAA has a plan to provide officials if they fall short.
The numbers are strong locally. The Sunshine Football Officials Association has 130 members available for football. The West Coast Officials Association has 180 members, a number that “has stayed steady for the past three years,” Kaiser said.
One of the deterrents is the upfront cost for newcomers. There is a $50 fee to the FHSAA and to the officials association, as well as about $100 more for the uniform (pants, shirts, etc.).
There also can be a lot of turnover.
“In the first two years, about 30 percent of the people leave,” Kaiser said.
That leaves a core of older officials who will eventually need to be replaced. The average age is 53 for a West Coast football official and 51 for Sunshine.
“We definitely need young people,” Kaiser said.
A few younger officials were at the two weekend scrimmages (the West Coast held one at Jesuit). They all got experience working in a live-game setting.
“We can send guys out to work right away, so long as they pass a statewide test,” Taylor said. “This provides a little more work, a little more teaching and feedback before the games really begin.”