AFL urged to invest in umpires as participation numbers dwindle at community level

Spectators gesture from the grandstand as AFL umpires leave the field at the MCG.

An Australian rules football umpiring shortage is in danger of continuing because participation is “not keeping up with the growth of the game”, according to a confidential AFL review obtained by ABC Sport.

Key points:

  • An AFL review identified umpire numbers at the community level are dropping off
  • The workload facing umpires has increased in recent seasons
  • The review found women and girls represent only 11 per cent of umpire numbers

And umpire abuse in only a small part of the problem.

The strategy document from November 2021 reported the major reasons umpires were leaving the game included:

  • Work and study commitments (18 per cent)
  • Health/injury/age related (14 per cent)
  • Inadequate support/pay (13 per cent)
  • Lack of enjoyment (10 per cent)

Abuse, at 6 per cent, was eighth on the list.

AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan recently called for a crackdown on dissent.

“We are not going to tolerate the abuse of umpires.”

AFL captains agreed the change was necessary.

“I think most clubs would’ve received it pretty well and understands how important they are to our game,” Western Bulldogs captain Marcus Bontempelli said.

St Kilda skipper Jack Steele said umpires were vital to the game.

“The umpires are just as important as players, so we’ve got to respect that,” he said.

Spectators gesture from the grandstand as AFL umpires leave the field at the MCG.
Umpire abuse is prevalent in the AFL.(AAP: Scott Barbour)

Community umpires are grateful for the shift in attitude, while understanding there are bigger problems looming for the sport.

Under the headline “The shortage of umpires is now at crisis point”, the AFL’s review found COVID-19 devastated umpire recruitment.

“COVID has negatively impacted umpiring two-fold,” the review report read.

“2020 saw the highest number of non-returning umpires on record [and] the lowest intake of new umpires in six years.

Increased workload remains another threat.

One in five umpires routinely carry the whistle more than one match per weekend. One in 10 oversee two or more matches.

“Some umpires are officiating up to seven matches per weekend,” the report read.

“Excessive matches lead to an increased numbers of umpires leaving due to decreased enjoyment, injury, or burnout.

“A lack of qualified umpires increases volunteer load, impacts player safety, impacts enjoyment of the game.”

A Western Bulldogs AFL player runs with the ball in two hands against the Tigers.A Western Bulldogs AFL player runs with the ball in two hands against the Tigers.
Western Bulldogs skipper Marcus Bontempelli has backed greater respect for umpires.(AAP: Scott Barbour)

The report’s author Damian Anderson quit his position as community umpiring development manager last year.

Mr Anderson said the AFL needed to focus on recruitment if retention rates were “unchangeable”.

“Acquisition should be the focus. A supercharged umpire acquisition strategy is required,” he wrote in the report.

AFL umpire John Howorth coaches community-level whistle blowers in Melbourne’s outer east.

Mr Howorth said he saw the shortage coming.

“Since COVID the numbers have reduced about 8 per cent,” he said.

“But the level of football, particularly the [expansion] of women’s football and the amount of junior grades, have gone up.

“The increase in football games and the amount of services umpires can provide has gone up but the number of umpires is slightly declining over the last two years.”

Mr Howorth said some umpires controlled up to 90 match per season, a leading cause of burnout.

“I think the best thing we can do is provide a really inviting environment, particularly at training and match day,” he said.

“It gives them confidence to go into their workplaces and their schools because of their experiences they’ve had as umpires.”

Umpiring begins at grassroots level

Junior football clubs are seen as the best source of new umpires.

The AFL’s review found up to 94 per cent of umpires play or have played junior club football.

“Engaging junior clubs to assist in the recruitment of new umpires from their playing cohort goes direct to this source,” the report read.

Mr Howorth said the AFL needed to promote the benefits of umpiring.

“Fitness is obviously one of them,” he said.

Umpiring is seen by many young people as a good first job.

Teenagers can earn between $50 and $100 a match as field, boundary, or goal umpires.

“To increase new umpire conversion rates the AFL is required to invest in umpire participation in a similar way it does with other participation spaces (e.g. Auskick),” the report read.

Not enough females in umpiring

The AFL review found girls and women were “severely under-represented within umpiring”.

“To close the gap between the number of registered umpires and the number of required umpires, a greater number of female umpires must be engaged,” the report read.

A female AFL field umpire has her left hand held to her side during a match.A female AFL field umpire has her left hand held to her side during a match.
The AFL has hoped more female umpires would follow in the footsteps of Eleni Glouftsis.(AAP: Scott Barbour)

Girls and women represent only 11 per cent of umpires and have a much higher “non-return” rate than boys and men.

“A research project funded by the AFL Research Board in partnership with The University of Sydney investigated the experiences of females in umpiring,” the report read.

“Findings indicate that there are systemic, institutional issues with supporting women and girls in umpiring, regardless of region or level, which negatively impact the experiences and numbers of females in umpiring.

“Report recommendations are required to be actioned to increase the number of females involved in umpiring and help address the overall umpire shortfall.”



Author: Ivan Robinson