Imagine “Friday Night Lights” … only with fewer lights.
That is not a hypothetical. This is happening in New Mexico, even as we speak.
Changes to the scheduling landscape are already a reality, and the problem will become more expansive if New Mexico can’t find a way to replenish its ever-shrinking pool of high school football officials.
“We’re in crisis mode,” said Dana Pappas, the New Mexico Activities Association’s longtime commissioner of officials. “It’s kind of a perfect, terrible storm.”
New Mexico is running so low on officials that already the NMAA has begun asking schools to volunteer to move Friday night games to either Thursday night or Saturday afternoon, thereby allowing certain crews to work multiple games on a given week.
About 15 games this season have been moved off Friday nights, so far, according to the NMAA, with about three times as many JV and middle school games being outright canceled or changed, NMAA executive director Sally Marquez said.
Moreover, there have been instances where schools asked to move from Saturday to Friday, but had to be denied because they couldn’t find officials for the game.
If the number of officials continues to dwindle, then the number of Friday night games will also dwindle.
“We’re in dire straits,” Marquez said. “The whole country is.”
Anecdotally, there are other examples that illustrate this problem.
Pappas said that for the first time in her career she had to turn down requests from southern Colorado and West Texas when asked for help to staff games.
“It’s a statewide epidemic at this point,” said Pappas, the NMAA’s COO since 2004 and one of the region’s foremost authorities on prep officiating. “We’re in a ‘bend until it breaks’ mode, and that’s not a comfortable place to be.”
If that trend doesn’t reverse in New Mexico, the NMAA will be reaching out to even more member schools and asking of them a difficult favor: to surrender a precious Friday night calendar date.
“We ask first and foremost for volunteers,” Marquez said. “If we don’t (get any), then some games that don’t have officials … we won’t have enough officials to call them.”
Football is not the only sport struggling in this regard; soccer is also down noticeably, based on figures — supplied by the NMAA and which appear with this story — that tabulate total officials from 2006-07 through 2016-17.
In 2009-10, the number of statewide football officials to call high school games stood at 423. That has diminished to 340 this fall, which computes to about a 20 percent reduction over the past seven years, the NMAA’s numbers reveal.
“I’ve been doing this 28 years,” said Ken Murphy, once one of the state’s most prominent referees, now retired and the chief assigner for crews coming out of the state’s central region. “And this is the worst (it’s ever been).”
A high school crew includes five members. That aforementioned 20 percent computes to 16 fewer crews available to the assigners in New Mexico’s five designated regions, compared with seven years ago.
“It’s one of those jobs … it’s not a thing that people in this era really want to do,” Murphy opined.
The central region — which includes Albuquerque and stretches south to Magdalena, west to Laguna, north to Cuba and east to Moriarty/Estancia — has 101 officials this season according to the NMAA. Using 2009-10 as the high-water mark over the past decade — and this was very near the height of the country’s economic struggles when people were looking to supplement their regular income streams — the central region had 126 officials on its roster.
Translation: Five fewer central region crews are available today than in 2009-10.
The state’s northwest and (especially) southeast regions also are struggling mightily.
To wit: nine crews from the central region were assigned to games outside the central region just this weekend. Assigners from other regions usually come to Murphy and Pappas when they need help getting their games covered.
It used to be, Pappas said, that only a couple of crews would need to travel outside the central region on a given weekend.
Nearly everyone interviewed for this story said finding new officials isn’t necessarily the problem — it is keeping them beyond those first couple of years.
“We’re bringing them in, but we’re not retaining them,” Pappas said.
This refrain is common from the soccer community, too. From 2009 to 2016, soccer is down from 276 officials to 225 this fall.
Why the downturn? No one answer applies universally.
The economy’s upswing almost certainly drove away a percentage of recruits who became officials at or near the start of this decade when the economy was in distress.
Retirement is another cause. Conflicts with daytime jobs are prevalent. There are family considerations.
The abuse officials take also factors prominently into this equation. Fans are more feverish about their sports than ever before, and that’s putting it mildly.
“Probably the No. 1 concern that turns them off,” said local soccer official Richard Inman, “is all the hollering and stuff. That’s a lot of it.”
Added longtime local soccer official Gary Randall: “The spectators are getting more involved — which is both positive and negative. It takes a certain amount of maturity do deal with that.”
Pappas concurred. Many men and women, she said, bolt because they are unwilling to endure those verbal barrages from coaches and fans (re: parents) alike, and even the athletes in some cases.
“Some thought it would be easy money,” she said. “Then they realized it was better from the stands.”
Another soccer referee, Mario Garcia, said time constraints definitely can hamstring an official, especially in a state where the bodies are already spread so thin.
“Time is a big concern,” he said. “I think we all have that problem, to some degree.”
Del Norte High School head athletic trainer Sabra Papich is also a soccer official and works youth games and adult leagues, but not prep contests.
She is also a board member for the Central New Mexico Soccer Officials Association (CNMSOA), and her primary focus is recruiting female referees. She estimates that about 75 percent of the central region is comprised of males.
“The main issues are that all of our upper level refs are away doing college games on the weekend, which shorts high schools, youth leagues and adult leagues,” Papich said.
“Referees that do a lot of high school games during the week are tired and don’t want to do much youth or adult (leagues),” she added.
Local prep football officials who also work the college level can only work high schools if they are a college alternate. If they are contracted with a college conference, Pappas said, they are prohibited from doing prep games.
Ideally, Papich said, soccer officials should call several games a week. But their workloads are often stifling.
Inman, who is 57, said he officiated six games in a four-day period during Labor Day week. Garcia said earlier this season he worked four high school tournament games in a single day.
“It’s taxing on your fitness, on your mental (health), on family life,” said Papich, who has been a soccer official for seven years.
At the APS Soccer Complex, multiple members of an afternoon crew usually turn around and work another game in the evening. Varsity games are three-person crews; JV games have two officials.
Randall is also an instructor and said the area is always on the lookout for new people. Papich said at the end of this season, she will send emails out to local varsity and JV girls coaches in an effort to target high school players who are about to graduate and might like to stay involved in the game.
Murphy and Pappas say similar overtures have been made to recruit former football players to officiating as they target the next generation.
Not everyone is willing to pay their dues, figuratively speaking, before ascending to calling important games at the varsity level, Murphy said. Pappas said the usual trajectory for an official meant they wouldn’t work a varsity game for about five years.
“We don’t have that luxury anymore,” she said. “(Sometimes) we have to put in officials that have only been in for one or two years. We’re having to accelerate the training process quite a bit.”
In the end, these words from Pappas neatly tied a bow on the state’s dilemma.
“It’s reached a fever pitch,” she said.
And not the good kind.