Soccer referee Kosta Nedeljkovic, 18, quizzes trainees on flag signals during a clinic at East End Community School in Portland in late April. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

When Kosta Nedeljkovic started officiating youth soccer games a few years ago, he was just looking to make a few bucks on the weekends.

“Once I started doing it, I loved it,” said Nedeljkovic, 18, a senior at Portland High. Set to enroll at the University of Maine in the fall, he plans on getting certified to referee high school soccer games as soon as possible so he can start working those in college.

“As long as I’m physically fit enough, I see myself (officiating),” he said.

Nedeljkovic is a rarity: a young person who not only tried officiating youth sports but developed a passion for it.

With the number of game officials in decline for years, youth sports leagues run by community rec departments and travel teams are scrambling to find enough referees and umpires to work games. Throughout the winter and spring, efforts have increased across the state to recruit new game officials – including teenagers like Nedeljkovic.

“It is very important to get younger people to referee. They keep our games covered with certified referees, as well as they learn the rules of soccer and become better players,” said Peter LeVasseur, director of instruction for the Maine Soccer Referee Association.


For the past few years, LeVasseur has been conducting clinics in several locations across the state – including a new one this year in Lewiston – to attract and train prospective soccer refs. The classes this year helped to increase the number of registered youth soccer officials in Maine to 600, an increase of 100 from 2022, he said. Eight more clinics are scheduled this summer in communities ranging from Kittery to Farmington.

Nedeljkovic helped LeVasseur train prospective soccer referees at a two-day clinic at Portland’s East End Community School in late April. Among the two dozen who attended were many teenagers.

Sean Williams, 42, and his 14-year-old son, Jack, took the course. After coaching travel soccer for six years and serving on the Gorham Youth Soccer board, Sean Williams said he was ready to give officiating a try.

Sean Williams, right, of Gorham flashes his approval as his son, Jack, tries on a referee uniform during a training clinic at East End Community School in Portland in late April. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“It’s a way for us to stay involved with the game,” he said as they walked off the field after a quick lesson in whistle blowing and hand signals. “It’s good to get a better understanding of the rules. I coached travel soccer in Gorham, and there was a few times the ref would make a call and I’d say to myself, ‘I think I know the rule, but maybe I don’t.’ ”

LeVasseur told his students they could be working youth soccer games as early as Sunday, the day after they completed the class. To officiate a youth soccer game, you must be at least 14, LeVasseur said. Officials make $30 to $60 per game, depending on experience, the age group of the players, and whether or not they are assigned center referee or assistant referee duties.

“We get a lot of high school kids,” LeVasseur said of the classes, which cost $115 plus $55 for a uniform. “Where we lose them is when they go off to college.”


LeVasseur said his group is trying to recruit college students who played soccer in high school or college to come on as officials for middle and high school games. Junior high games pay $50 per game, while varsity game officials will be paid $87.50 per game starting this fall.


Clinics for game officials like the one held in Portland are popping up across the state, in multiple sports. A clinic to teach youth baseball and softball umpires was held in early April in Waterville.

The number of umpires working Little League baseball and softball games is down approximately 25% from a few years ago, said Bill Finley, the Little League District 6 administrator, overseeing Cumberland and Oxford Counties.

“I’ve got 15 leagues in my district. Eight or nine have umpires work every day and have more than one they can call on. An umpire who lives in South Portland can work anywhere from Cape Elizabeth to Standish,” Finley said.

Jana Grant, president of South Portland Little League, said her group began reaching out to umpires sooner than last season, even before the season schedule was complete, after running into problems last season when umpires they requested were already booked for games.


While no data is available for the number of game officials nationally at the youth sports level, the pool of high school game officials decreased 9% from the 2018-19 school year to 2021-22. according to Dana Pappas, the director of officiating services with the National Federation of State High School Associations. Some of the departures were due to COVID-19 concerns. With youth sports often the training ground for officials before they move on to high school games, the problem has permeated sports across levels.

Students at a youth soccer referee clinic pick out flags at East End Community School in Portland on April 28. About two dozen prospective game officials took part in the clinic, many of them teenagers. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“It’s no secret getting officials in any sport is difficult, and Maine is not unique in that,” said Steve Strout, the president of Scarborough Youth Lacrosse.

When Strout brought his team of seventh and eighth grade boys to play a game in Berwick recently, only one official was there to work the game. That referee stayed as close to the middle of the field as he could to better observe both ends. Coaches were asked to call out of bounds plays on their respective sidelines. Normally, two officials work a game.

“You don’t complain about it, right? You shouldn’t. Thank God somebody showed up,” Strout said. “That guy did a great job.”


The biggest reason more people don’t get into – or stay with – officiating is verbal abuse from fans.


In 2017, the National Association of Sports Officials conducted a survey of over 17,000 sports officials from all levels of competition and all sports. Seventy percent of officials quit by the end of their third year. Of those, 75% said they quit because of verbal abuse from spectators, often parents.

Across the country, that problem is slowly being addressed. In March, state Rep. Michael Brennan of Portland sponsored a bill, L.D. 896, that would make verbal abuse of an official or participant in a sporting event subject to a $100 fine, mirroring legislation filed in other states. Brennan said one reason he sponsored the bill is that he has friends who officiate high school and youth sports and say the problem of abusive fans has gotten worse in recent years. He also saw the problem firsthand when he attended a high school soccer game.

“I saw some things parents were saying and doing that was completely unnecessary,” Brennan said.

This season, the Little League in Deptford Township, New Jersey, instituted a new rule: Fans who verbally abuse umpires must in turn umpire three games before they’re allowed back as a spectator.

“It’s hard to recruit new people: Everybody sees things on the news and on social media with stupid parents,” said Finley, who has worked with Little League 35 years, including 30 as an umpire.

Nedeljkovic, the teenage soccer ref, said fan abuse hasn’t been a concern for him.


“When I’m out there, I really zone out the fans. They don’t impact me,” he said.

Portland High junior Sadie Armstrong, right, has started umpiring Little League games this spring. At left, is Shawn Falkner, her partner for the game in Westbrook on April 29. Courtesy of Sadie Armstrong

The newcomers Finley gets in baseball and softball typically range in age from 35 to 55. But some, like Portland High junior Sadie Armstrong, buck that trend.

One of the top high school softball players in southern Maine, Armstrong began umpiring youth softball games this spring. Armstrong said so far she’s had no negative interactions with fans. Little League’s rules require an adult supervisor on site when an umpire is under the age of 18 to handle unruly fan behavior, Finley said.

“I wanted to be able to give back, and it’s another way to be involved with my sport. Plus, I think it’s important for the players to see a young woman behind the plate, rather than just old men who didn’t play the game,” Armstrong said. “It’s a great way to think about the rules in a different way, and it’s a lot of fun.”

In Little League, umpires are volunteers, but Finley has found ways to reward them for their time. After each season, he treats umpires to a Portland Sea Dogs game. During the season, he’ll provide prepaid gas cards to umpires to help offset the costs of traveling to games. For students who umpire, Finley will make sure the time served is put towards community service hours many communities use as a graduation requirement.



Ron Kramer, vice president of the Maine Lacrosse Officials Association, said paying state and national dues this season for first-time officials, along with providing their officials jersey, helped add 18 new officials. Those dues and shirts would cost approximately $200, Kramer said.

“That’s the most (new officials) I’ve onboarded in my life,” said Kramer, a longtime official in lacrosse, soccer and ice hockey. “Our goal is to reduce the barrier of entry for anyone who is considering becoming an official.”

Brett Allen, president of Maine Youth Lacrosse, said he became a certified official for both boys and girls lacrosse to set an example for others who might consider officiating. However, he hasn’t had time to work many games. Between coaching and having three boys who play lacrosse, his time is already stretched thin. It’s an issue he thinks many parents face who might consider officiating.

“The problem I’m running into is, I’m a dad and a coach,” Allen said. “If you can get five (new officials) a year, that’s pretty good I think.”

Joshua Wolfgram, president of Back Bay Lacrosse, the youth lacrosse program in Portland, said the league reached out to parents to gauge interest in either officiating or coaching. The response was minimal.

“It’s hard to get coaches, trainers, officials. But everyone wants their kids to play, and play a lot. I’ve had conversations with parents, if I don’t have (enough) coaches, I’ll stop taking registrations,” Wolfgram said.

This season, there will be days on which teams from around the state gather at a neutral site for a day full of games, making it easier for officials to work multiple games in a day at one spot. Earning $50 per game, an official who works multiple games in one day can earn a decent paycheck for a few hours’ work.

“Officials will work three games in a row,” Allen said.

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