Soccer leagues throughout Alberta are preparing for a return to play in the coming weeks, but there aren't enough referees.
The Alberta Soccer Association oversees coaching, player development and refereeing for around 200 clubs in 23 districts across the province, involving more than 130,000 people in a normal year. With the province likely to relax restrictions in the coming weeks, the association is preparing for games to start up again after a long hiatus.
The association is expecting to see about 60 to 70 per cent of its player base return, but only a third of referees.
"The math doesn't add up," said Richard Adams, the association's executive director.
The organization usually registers around 2,400 referees. Recruitment for this season was following the trajectory of a typical year until it bumped into a surging wall of new COVID-19 cases this spring.
"The third wave started to show its early stages, and it just stopped," Adams said Saturday.
There are between 600 and 700 referees now registered. Adams hopes more will sign up as games get underway but the current registration numbers could mean overworked referees or games going without, he said.
"We know we need help," Adams said.
Part of the issue is a lack of new blood. Adams said on average the organization would train 500 to 800 new referees each year.
"Last year, we could do almost none of that training because of COVID restrictions," Adams said, not to mention the lack of games.
Alberta Soccer has made an effort to attract referees despite the pandemic. Registration fees for 2021 were halved and training classes have mostly moved online with an in-person component that has dropped from 16 or 17 hours to about three.
Games likely to start soon
Adams predicts games will start up in just a few weeks for youth leagues.
Starting Tuesday, the province will once again allow outdoor sports and recreation with a limit of 10 people. Stage 2, which could start as early as June 10, would allow youth and adult sports to resume with no restrictions, both indoors and outdoors.
Adams expects teams will need a few buffer weeks to form up and get some practice in before games can start.
"We're super excited," Adams said. "It's moving faster than maybe we had anticipated but that just makes the excitement sort of grow faster for everybody."
Safety will still be a priority, he said, as organizers prepare for what play will need to look like.
"Whatever day we're allowed to do it safely, I think you're gonna see those fields fill up pretty quickly," Adams said.