BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — Youth sports leagues across Alabama are facing shortages of umpires and referees as warmer weather settles in.

The lack of people willing to officiate games is a nationwide problem, but is starting to make its way into bigger and smaller communities.

“I think it is pretty much just now getting to our area in east Alabama,” said Jon Swafford, the director for the City of Heflin’s Park and Recreation Department.

Swafford recently shared information about the need over social media after nearly having to cancel a baseball game.

“I was able to reach out to our head football coach over here at the high school. He’s umpired before so he was able to cover the game for us,” said Swafford.

Issues aren’t limited to the diamond. The Alabama Soccer Association is also having to find ways around reduced officials. The problem seemed to get worse during COVID.

“Every year about half of our referees that we actually certify that year will actually quit by the end of the season,” said Jennifer Pfeiffer, the Executive Director for the Alabama Soccer Association.

Pfeiffer said the organization represents at least 15,000 youth players in addition to thousands of more adults, coaches, and support members.

“We just had a huge tournament in Alabama in Birmingham. They had 178 teams, well normally in some of the age groups we have 3 referees. Well we only used 1 referee per field,” said Pfeiffer.

While there are many reasons for the lack of interest, Pfeiffer said disrespect from parents and coaches has played a role.

Other recreation leaders agreed that heckling from spectators has made it difficult to retain officials.

“Some of them are volunteers, but they are stepping away because they’re saying, ‘Hey it is not worth it if I am going to have to worry about somebody following me to my car and beating me up or harassing me and talking crazy to me.’ They’re just not wanting to do it and be involved in it,” said Dalton Jones, the director of Pleasant Valley Recreational Sports in Calhoun County.

Jones estimates there are about 50-60 girls playing in the softball league this spring. With fewer umpires, there is less time on the field.

“We just cut down tremendously on the games played just on the simple fact that we didn’t have enough umpires,” said Jones.

As older and experienced referees retire, coaches say there are fewer people willing to step up to the plate to help.

While most umpires are paid per game, hours are limited and there can be costs for equipment. The cost of travel is also an obstacle, but Jones said the league works to try to keep officials close to home.

“If they’re in a specific area we try to set it up so they only officiate that area,” said Jones.

Coaches and league representatives from Birmingham to east Alabama are asking parents and other adults to consider giving back by getting involved.

Needs exist in almost every community.

Swafford believes children will be negatively impacted without more people willing to raise their hand.

“Youth sports kind of builds character in kids and gives them something to do,” said Swafford.

If you’re interested in helping in your city or community, contact your local recreational sports league to learn how to get started.