IT’S the million dollar question: what keeps people from umpiring?

Without umpires and officials, the game of football, or any sport for that matter, can’t be played.

For a number of years now, umpire shortages in local football have put pressure on Gippsland-based umpire associations, and now this year, the full extent of that shortage has been seen.

Recently in the Mid Gippsland Football-Netball League, there wasn’t enough umpires to fill a senior game between Foster and Thorpdale.

Speaking with some individuals from the Latrobe Valley Umpires Association (LVUA) and the Sale Umpires Association (SUA), the Express can confirm a number of reasons as to why there is a shortage, and why there is no resolution in the near future.

After speaking to both associations, both agree on a number of components that may contribute to the shortages, yet there are a number of challenges that associations face on their own.

The LVUA are short in field umpires, while the SUA are facing a goal umpire shortage.

Goal umpires are much easier to fill with club volunteers, but the same does not fly for field umpires.

With that being the case, the LVUA are currently about 30 per cent down on umpires pre-COVID as a total.

Since COVID, plus a range of factors including retirements and unavailability, it is taking a toll on the games that the LVUA officiate in the Mid Gippsland FNL.

At this stage, the LVUA shortage is roughly affecting one senior game per week in the MGFNL, as well as junior games on Sundays and the women’s and girls leagues – which they have not been able to help out at all.

“Those sort of unavailability issues have always sort of been around, it’s just that in previous years we’ve had the numbers to back them up.

“Those numbers have slightly dropped off, but never bounced back,” LVUA Secretary Dan Swallow said.

The additional changes to the MGFNL with the addition of former Alberton FNL clubs, around the same time as COVID, only multiplied the pressure that the LVUA faced.

With more games to officiate, and the shift of the MGFNL’s central point, it has made it harder to not only fill games but attract people to umpire.

The LVUA is based in Morwell, but its primary league, the MGFNL takes in Mirboo North and another seven clubs further south.

Upon asking Swallow on what the main issues are, he said: “I don’t have an answer, if I did, I’d resolve it.”

The LVUA has worked with clubs and the leagues to get club umpires (who usually officiate reserves games) to train with the LVUA in an attempt to try and make things run smoother on gameday, but to also potentially keep those club volunteers interested in the gig.

From the eyes of SUA Director of Umpiring, Shane Garvey, he believes that football has gained attraction, taking individuals away from umpiring.

“There’s been a fairly big growth in participation (in football), and umpiring is just falling off, it’s going the other way,” Garvey said.

“It’s always been harder to attract umpires than it has been to attract people into clubs,” Swallow added.

Similar to the LVUA, travel is becoming a factor for the SUA.

The SUA mainly cover the North Gippsland FNL, and Gippsland League games featuring Sale and Maffra, but such are the shortages, SUA umpires have even been called upon to umpire games in Drouin and Warragul.

In the weekend just gone, SUA and LVUA combined to supply field umpires at Morwell Recreation Reserve for the match between Morwell and Leongatha in the Gippsland League.

The SUA also identified that the entry costs into umpiring might deter people away from doing it. By contrast, the LVUA cover a lot of early costs to get more people into the umpiring scene.

Garvey mentioned that for a goal umpire to get started in the SUA, it may cost them around $300, which is something that many people simply find unattractive.

But the LVUA appear to be making those offers that other associations aren’t, merely because they are facing a much larger, and more damning shortage compared to other associations within the region.

Another reason is sponsorships, or lack of.

Gaining sponsorships for an umpiring association to cover costs is not as attractive for prospective businesses, compared to a football club. And although associations are constantly on the lookout for sponsors, it almost always comes to no avail.

Between these two associations however, they share a lot of common challenges, and many of which are out of their control.

Abuse of umpires is a massive talking point, that is not only an issue at the highest level of Australian Rules, but can be exploited at a local level because there is little to no enforcement or punishment.

For prospective umpires, abuse is a massive deterrent for those wanting to get involved, especially those starting at a young age.

“I’ll give credit to the clubs and leagues, most of them are very much supportive of umpires,” Garvey said.

“Most of the abuse you hear these days is from spectators.”

The scrutiny that umpires face for a standard decision also plays a factor.

“People don’t like to place themselves in those positions either,” Swallow added.

“Respect around umpires … it’s going to take a long time to change public perception around that.

“There is a huge amount of work on this done by the leagues and by the AFL, and it has come so, so far.”

Unavailability is something that umpires have had to deal since the beginning of time. And just like any normal job, people will take leave or go on holidays, or eventually retire. It’s life.

If an umpire takes control of a game or two on a Saturday, they are then unlikely to fill a game on a Sunday, only stretching the artillery of all umpiring associations in the Gippsland region.

Factors such as pay just aren’t attractive enough for umpires to cancel out their entire weekend to take to the field. Maybe if it was, would there be more people in the sport?

“We struggle big time on Sundays because all of our guys umpire on Saturdays and then no one wants to give up their whole weekend to umpiring footy on a Sunday,” Garvey said.

“If all of our (SUA) umpires were available every week, we’d cover every single game that we have, quite easily. But you’ve got people going away, people working.”

That’s why working together with other umpiring associations has been a massive benefit to those that are struggling.

“We work pretty closely with LVUA and East Gippsland … but we’ve also sent people to Drouin and Warragul for games to help cover when we’ve had spare,” Garvey said.

“In the past, LVUA and East Gippsland have helped us when we’ve been short.”

What people mightn’t realise, is the fact that umpiring associations run almost identically to a football club. Umpires train, play and celebrate together just like any other football-netball club would.

“Umpiring associations are basically just another footy club. We basically run them the same way, it’s the same sort of culture, support, and everything like that,” Garvey said.

“The third team out there on the day.”

If you are interested in umpiring, both the LVUA and SUA invite those who are interested to train with them.

The SUA train on Wednesday nights from 6pm at the Sale Main Oval.

The LVUA train on two separate nights. The juniors take to the track on Tuesday nights from 5.30pm at the West End Sporting Complex, Traralgon, while the seniors train on Thursday nights, also from 5.30pm at Maryvale Recreation Reserve, Morwell.