Garret Griffin remembers his first game like it was yesterday.
Unable to play baseball due to an injury, the Manawa, Wisconsin native gave umpiring a try as a junior in high school.
"I thought I'd stay involved with baseball, so I went to this umpire camp in Baraboo," he said. "I started realizing it was good money, so I just kept working at it."
After being certified by the WIAA, Griffin got his start as a replacement umpire for youth games for the Fox Valley Officials Association. He worked his way into adult league games, and eventually high school games by the time he was 18.
Griffin, 21, now has five years under his belt, and has begun umpiring college games. In March, he worked the Russmatt Central Florida Invitational, which included the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.
Griffin is on track for a successful career as an official, but is an exception to a concerning trend in Wisconsin. Though the number of Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Association-licensed officials is relatively strong - 8,700 for the 2017-18 school year compared to 8,300 in 2014-15, or 9,500 in 2010-11 - there is a widespread urgency to recruit new officials. Most are nearing the end of their service time, and younger ones often hang up their gear to start families or pursue careers.
Bruce Kaiser has witnessed the transition from multiple viewpoints. He is the treasurer of the Coulee Region Officials Association, Commissioner of the Coulee Conference, and a longtime official of football, basketball and baseball. Kaiser believes aside from the common reasons for staying away from officiating, such as low pay and verbal abuse from fans and teams, today's high school-aged officials lack the interest to stay in the game.
"I encourage varsity players when they're seniors, if you're not going to play in college - which the majority of them won't - get interested in officiating," he said. "If the games don't have officials, we won't have games."
Combating the trend
The WIAA recently launched a campaign titled "Get Back in the Game," to recruit officials of all ages. It also has incentives for high school students and members of the armed forces to become an official at a reduced price.
Most recently, it partnered with the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Association for a recruitment fair in Eau Claire in April to answer questions about becoming an official.
Joan Gralla represented the association at the fair, and said two of the approximately 25 attendees have since become licensed officials, a victory in her eyes. She said there is also talk of holding more fairs at college campuses around the state to further spread the word.
"Information was well received," said Gralla, who has worked directly with officials for 18 years through the WIAA.
How officials are trained
The only requirements to work WIAA-sponsored games are completing a open-book test and filing for a license. The WIAA provides resources for training, but officials are considered independent contractors, Gralla said.
"When they sign up, they attest they know the rules and mechanics of the game," she said. "Are there more individuals that could use more training? Yes, but with the shortage of officials, sometimes schools pull whoever they can get."
For years, the preferred method of training has been mentoring, which pairs an experienced official with an up-and-coming one.
Griffin had that experience with Jon Buelow, who schedules umpires for games in the Stevens Point area, and believes that relationship has sculpted him into the official he is today.
Kaiser also trained under a mentor, and said it's the best way to gain on-field experience.
"Just to have that realization to know that if I have a question on something, I have somebody with a little more experience, whether it's a specific rule question or it's a positioning question, that person's been there and knows exactly how it should be done."
Griffin and Kaiser are both advocates for umpiring clinics. Twenty years ago, state-run clinics were mandatory for the more popular sports, Kaiser said. They were offered through area colleges, but went likely went away due to cost.
The CROA has a meeting each year to work through the test and talk about the mechanics of football, basketball and baseball, Kaiser said. Videos are provided for younger officials to get up to speed, and most get a chance to work a football scrimmage prior to the regular season starting in late August.
There are opportunities for high-quality hands-on instruction, but rarely in La Crosse (Sparta will host a volleyball clinic in August, and Shelby Youth Baseball offers a umpire clinic each May, but is primarily focused on beginners). Basketball camps are offered in Eau Claire, Baraboo, Madison, and Milwaukee, but at a price. The same can be said about the Wisconsin Umpires Association and other training academies throughout the Midwest.
"If you want to get into it, that's by far the best place you'll learn, because you have multiple clinicians walking you through, they'll literally run up and down the court with you, or on the baseball diamond with you during an actual game situation," Kaiser said. "A lot of kids now days and even ones who are my age who want to get into it don't want to spent $325 and three weekend days to be away from their family to get into it."
Both Griffin and Kaiser would like to see the WIAA create a uniform structure for training officials across the state. Then perhaps more qualified individuals would step up and hold clinics.
"There are college officials kind of hiding all over the place. They get the game, they know what the problem is with officiating right now," Griffin said. "You need to give them an incentive or help them organize these clinics and then bring them in and pay them a game fee, a flat fee to come in and mentor young officials."
Gralla said the WIAA would gladly provide resources and information if classes were once again offered through colleges. It has already provided rule books and exam copies to a handful of high schools that offered training courses last year, but only as close to La Crosse as Mauston.
Veteran umpire Nic Betts would like to see more education, but said there needs to be more collaboration between all levels.
"We need to do a better job coming together and making that happen," he said. "It's not one person that can make it happen, you have to have people helping from all those different entities that can help bring this together, both financially, time-wise, location-wise, an indoor gym in the winter time, that kind of thing."
At the end of the day, most agree its passion that keeps officials on the field, and in the classrooms developing the next generation of umpires. As pressure builds to make the right calls, so does the need for formalized training to ensure the integrity of the game for those who serve intact for years to come.