by Dan Woog

Nearly every soccer organization in the United States faces a crisis: Referees are leaving in alarming numbers.

Most groups think the solution is money. If we pay them more, the thinking goes, we’ll attract more.

Iowa Soccer takes a different approach. Administrators are making it easier for young officials to begin in the first place. Then they give them the tools they really need: not instruction in the “Laws of the Game,” but resources to handle coaches, parents and players.

There’s money involved, of course. But in this case, it’s a grant from U.S. Soccer to help train the referee trainers.

Iowa Soccer – the governing body of both youth and adult soccer in the Hawkeye State – recently received funding to expand a pilot program that grows the base of the referee pyramid. It targets youngsters ages 12 to 14, minimizing barriers to entry while helping them manage small-sided games.

The grant is one of 19 awarded through U.S. Soccer’s “Innovate to Grow” program. The total of over $3 million focuses on increasing participation and retention, and encouraging a variety of play.

Sparked by a nearly 50 percent decline in youth officials in a five-year period, Iowa Soccer CEO Dan Cataldi and referee and sportsmanship director Hidajet Tica zeroed in on the base of the pyramid.

“I always thought introductory courses were too law-heavy,” says Cataldi. “They didn’t prepare new referees for the actual experience.” He speaks from experience: a national referee, Cataldi worked NCAA Division I and MLS preseason matches before getting injured.

He and Tica – also a national referee with MLS experience – created a pilot program. There is no cost for the training, which prepares participants to officiate 6- and 7-year-old games. Rather than instruction on the nuances of fouls, it explores “What ifs.” What should you do, for example, if a ball goes out of bounds and a player from the wrong team throws it in? Or a mom runs onto the field in the middle of a game, because her child is crying?

The pilot program rolled out last spring, with 60 youngsters in four clubs. This year it expanded to eight clubs – large and small organizations, in metropolitan and rural areas. Besides free access to the training, and every new referee is given a shirt.

So far, Cataldi and Tica have conducted all of the training. Moving forward, they will train others to lead the courses. The U.S. Soccer grant will enable Iowa Soccer to push the program out to 40 clubs – half of the organization.

It will also pay for the first year of referee certification, and a uniform, for every youngster who wants to continue beyond the initial program.

“Some kids enjoy refereeing. Some hate it. But now, you don’t have to pay $80 for a course, and buy a uniform, to realize it’s not for you,” Cataldi notes.

His 12-year-old daughter loves it (and the $45 per game she earns).

The goal is that the young officials, who begin with age-appropriate training, will want to move up the ranks, and take a certification class. When they do, Cataldi says, “they’ll already know how to blow the whistle, and introduce themselves to coaches. At that point, they can concentrate on the Laws of the Game.”

The project also involves sportsmanship.

“Kids – and adults – leave officiating because of the way they’re treated by coaches and parents,” Cataldi explains.

Iowa Soccer will provide “Respect 4 All” signage for their fields, and literature for everyone who is at those fields. The “4” refers to four stakeholders: players, parents, coaches and referees.

The program’s third prong is mentorship. “It doesn’t matter whether you want to do U-14 recreation or become a national referee,” Cataldi says. “We’ll help you.”

Feedback has been positive. The pilot clubs have asked for more training. The young referees who continued enjoy it; some have even taken the next grassroots course. Coaches and parents appreciate Iowa Soccer’s commitment to young officials.

“We’ll really know the impact three years from now,” Cataldi says. “Traditionally, that retention rate is very, very low.”

So far, the effort contributes to exactly what he and Tica envision: “a great environment in which parents enjoy watching their kids, coaches are doing their job, and referees are able to do theirs, too. All for the good of the game.”