- - Monday, July 31, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Once upon a time, many little boys wanted to be police officers or firefighters when they grew up. Perhaps that’s still the case today. But it seems like more tykes dream of being point guards, sluggers and quarterbacks.

Baseball’s trade deadline Monday put contenders and pretenders under the microscope. NFL interest is heating up with training camps underway from coast to coast. The NBA is cooling down — minus the bubbling Kyrie Irving rumors —after a torrid summer of intrigue.

And still they come. Wave after wave of high schoolers and preschoolers, eyes set on the college and pro ranks like the parents who drive them (figuratively and literally). With seemingly every game on TV, separated only by talk shows about the games and business, it’s no surprise that hands shoot up when kids are asked: “Who wants to be an athlete?”

Our exposure to major sports and their media coverage make it clear we’re talking about a multibillion-dollar industry. And with that much money at the top, you know there’s plenty along the supply line. Especially in the travel.

The Associated Press reports that communities across the country are reinventing themselves to serve as youth sports meccas. A 2009 study by the National Association of Sports Commissions and Ohio University found that participation in youth sports travel increased from 2008 to 2009 during the Great Recession. According to AP, spending has increased by 10 percent in each of the past two years, and $10.4 billion in spending was generated last year.

From the article: “More teams are going each and every year, because the one thing we found is families will always invest in their kids no matter what,” said Jim Arnold, director of business development for The Sports Force & Fields, a planning and management company.

Westfield, Indiana (population: 30,000) opened a 400-acre, $49 million complex built with public funds in 2014. Local officials in Florida’s Seminole County signed off on a $27 million facility completed in 2016. The Bluegrass Sports Commission in Lexington, Kentucky, has plans for a $30 million complex with multiple multi-use fields. This year, the city of Sandusky, Ohio, opened a $23.5 million facility on 57 acres.

Developers and elected officials argue that youth sports travel, with its associated regional and national tournaments, is recession-proof. Check back the next time one rolls around.

Either way, there’s a crisis back home.

A nationwide shortage of high school referees is causing alarm for administrators. The current crop of officials is aging and there aren’t enough newcomers to replace them. According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, only two of every 10 officials return for their third year of officiating.

“Year 3 is when we cross our fingers,” Mark Uyl, an administrator with Michigan’s prep sports association, told the NFSHSA for a story in April. “It is like the freshman year in college. It is a make-or-break kind of year. Every state association in the country is feeling the effects of an officials’ shortage. It is getting harder and harder, not only to recruit new officials, but to retain them for years to come. That is the challenge that confronts us.”

The challenge confronting all of us – whether parents, fans and coaches of well-heeled travel teams or socioeconomically disadvantaged high school teams – is to provide a better example for the children. Besides time demands and low pay, abuse is a major reason fewer young adults gravitate to officiating.

LaVar Ball, coach of the Big Baller Brand AAU team, was involved in a high-profile incident last week. He criticized a female referee who gave him a technical foul during a basketball tournament in Las Vegas and she was replaced at halftime. Being yelled at by Ball is tame compared to the treatment some refs receive, including physical assaults.

The sharp rise in travel and club sports has increased the need for officials. Spectacular youth complexes don’t address an inescapable truth: Organized sports would die without the men and women who don stripes or blue uniforms. Unless young people cultivate an interest in that avocation, peers will have difficulty pursuing their chosen sports.

We have more than enough facilities for our youngsters to play games. But we could use more ingenuity like we’ll see at Zanesville (Ohio) High School in the upcoming school year.

Steve Shroyer, a licensed official in football, basketball and baseball, will teach an officiating class that’s being offered as an elective. He hopes the students can support the officials’ association and maybe join it afterward. It’s not the same as being a point guard, slugger or quarterback, but we desperately need a better response to:

“Who wants to be an official?”

• Brooklyn-born and Howard-educated, Deron Snyder writes his award-winning column for The Washington Times on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Follow him on Twitter @DeronSnyder.

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