As high school football season looms, referee shortages force schedule changes across Missouri

As football season quickly approaches some high school teams have already been forced to change their schedules for the second year in a row, due to a critical shortage of referees and umpires. 

Emry Dilday, executive director of the Southwest Missouri Football Officials Association, says the loss of referees began during the COVID pandemic. Dilday told The Heartlander the shortage has mostly affected football, basketball and baseball, and says, “Hopefully we’re gonna build back. It’s a problem, but it’s not a problem we can’t handle.”

Some 65 high schools across southwest Missouri play football under the Friday night lights, with only two officiating associations existing in the Springfield and Joplin regions. The SMFOA currently employs 130 officials working out of Springfield, and Joplin has approximately 85 referees; 29 varsity crews work out of both associations combined. 

Before the pandemic, officiating crews were capable of handling 29 Friday night matchups, if not more. For the last few years, officiating associations have had to force some schools to change to untraditional Thursday and Saturday games. Dilday says if nobody is willing to volunteer to change their schedule, names will be drawn out of a hat. 

Once teams have played a Thursday or Saturday game, they will not be forced again or asked to volunteer until every team in the region has had its turn.

Dilday says his association sends out teams of officials who stick together throughout the entire year, but he also says there are single referees on a reserve list. Although the list includes several additional referees, some are too new to start an entire crew with a white hat. 

In order to begin officiating varsity games, new officials are typically required to complete two years of refereeing lower-tier games at the junior varsity and junior high levels. Dilday says if new officials show skill and accuracy, they could be hired onto a varsity officiating crew earlier than the usual two-year requirement. 

Dilday says the SMFOA loses approximately 12 to 18 officials per year due to retirement, college kids moving away, and multiple other reasons.

“Our recruiting coordinator, Dan Murphy, does a really good job. He gets on the radio, on TV and really plugs it. Last year, we had 24 brand new first-year officials out of this association. “About eight of those did not come back. They tried it for a year, and it wasn’t their thing. But we had about 18 of them who did; 12 of them got into crews.”

To become a high school official in the Show-Me State, those interested must first register with the Missouri State High School Activities Association. MSHSAA will send a rule book to new registrants and require them to take an online test for state certification purposes. Future referees usually join a local officiating association before beginning the required on-field training and scheduled meetings throughout the year.

Dilday says female football referees are becoming a bigger deal in today’s world. In his 48 years of officiating high school football, the veteran has seen a few ladies come out to officiate on Friday nights. 

“We’ve got a gal who is gonna be on the varsity crew this year. Her dad is one of our officials. She started about three or four years ago, maybe. She started working lower-level stuff, and I started getting her in some varsity games. She is a good one and can handle herself. I’ve seen her work. Nine straight Friday nights, she is going to have a game.”

The 2023 Missouri high school football season begins on Aug. 25. 

If you are interested in becoming an official in the southwest Missouri region, contact SMFOA co-chairman of new official training and recruiting coordinator Dan Murphy at

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