AUSTIN (KXAN) For years, schools have seen far fewer referees lacing up their cleats to officiate games.

The Texas Association of Sports Officials said it has the numbers needed to make it work, although it may take a toll on the remaining referees.

“In Austin alone, we’ve got over 400 members,” TASO District 4 Director Brian Jones said. “Another 100 would really benefit us.”

From 2017 to 2021, TASO lost almost 2,000 referees.

“We’d like to put seven-man crews on every Friday night game,” TASO recruiting coordinator Doug Duke said. “Sometimes we only have enough to put a five-man crew on a game.”

Calling around four to six games each week isn’t easy, and repeated instances of verbal abuse sped up this mass departure.

“The verbal abuse is a factor. Travel is sometimes a factor,” Jones said. “It’s not something that you’re going to make a whole lot of money doing.”

According to TASO, only around 15% of its officials are under the age of 30. With this in mind, recruiting younger refs is critical.

“The goal is to get people into this and get them trained,” Duke said. “They’re going to do this for 30 or 40 years.”

Sean Johnson is part of a rookie referee class of 40 new officials in Austin.

“It’s not about the money to be honest with you,” he said. “It’s something to occupy your mind and your body to do something different than your normal everyday job.”

Now, the challenge is keeping him and his peers in the game.

“It’s easier to be a fan of the game than to be part of the game,” Jones concluded. “As an official, you are definitely part of the game.”

Headed into the fall football season, there was a silver lining in TASO’s numbers with membership increasing by over 6%, meaning about 1,000 new officials joined its ranks.

To address the growing incidents of verbal and physical abuse directed toward sports officials, the TASO board recently passed new rules to crack down on the problem.

TASO will review each school that has at least three reports of abuse.

If the majority finds the reports demonstrate a culture of failing to control players, coaches or fans, TASO will request the school provide a detailed plan to control the unruly conduct.

If a school fails to do so, TASO won’t provide refs for any sport at that school’s home games until the issue is appropriately addressed.

You can sign up to become a referee in Austin online.