By Kel Rowe

    Whilst the local footy season ran through to its exciting conclusion last month, without umpires, it wouldn’t have legs at all. Love them or hate them, the officials in fluoro are an essential part of our beloved game — but in recent years their numbers have significantly dwindled.

    In 2022, AFL boss Gillon McLachlan acknowledged the shortage of community umpires had reached a crisis point. It was widely reported that national numbers were as low as 6000, largely due to umpire abuse and poor on-field behaviour displayed by those at the top of the game.

    To combat this, the national league introduced a ‘dissent’ rule — where players risk conceding a free kick or 50m penalty when they question or dispute an umpire’s ruling — and additional sanctions targeting poor or disrespectful behaviour towards game officials. This has since seen a shift in attitudes, but local leagues are still working to build back umpire participation in community footy. 

    Steve Keating, the Director of Umpiring for the Western Region Football League, and a veteran of nearly 40 seasons of umpiring himself, took steps to change that in Season 2023, introducing an Umpiring Academy —a program aimed at boosting umpiring stocks for the league.

    ‘At the start of the year, we developed a presentation and invited any juniors who had an interest in umpiring to talk about the opportunities on offer to them — whether it be field or goal — it’s always up to the individual. But the key part was showing them how much they could earn in a season,’ he said.

    Umpiring in local footy not only presents an opportunity for junior footy players to develop their understanding of the sport and keep active, but uniquely, it also sees them earn some money for their efforts.

    ‘A 15-year-old can either go and work in McDonalds, or be a Boundary or Field Umpire, and make the same amount of money, if not more, over a weekend — that’s the comparison we presented,’ he said.

    Keating and his team took their presentation to a number of footy clubs and with the support of the club committee and other invested parties, the academy successfully produced over 30 new umpires from West Footscray Football Club alone.

    West Footscray’s Jack Burnham, 10, and Jack Mosca, 13, both participated in the academy initiative. Burnham undertakes both field and boundary roles, whilst Mosca prefers to run the boundary. They attend regular training sessions to ensure that they have the fitness to run out entire games and are supported by mentoring from senior umpires.

    ‘A lot of the goal umpires, they’ll talk you through it, and at half time, we’ll all have a talk…it’s helped me progress through,’ Mosca noted.

    When asked what they liked about umpiring and why others should do it, they were in firm agreeance that it was a lot of fun. ‘You get to do it with your friends and earn money,’ Burnham confirmed.

    Both boys were rewarded for their efforts this season by umpiring appointments in the WRFL Finals series, an honour and responsibility for such young officials.

    But it’s not just junior boys that the Umpiring Academy has in their sights. They’ve set a target of growing the participation of women and girls in umpiring too. In 2023, the initiative received 64 female registrations, one of the highest in the state for any community league, and Keating wants to see that exceed 100 in 2024.

    The plan is to encourage Senior Women’s players to umpire Junior Girl’s games to help develop their footy. ‘They can help coach out on the field – we know through research that junior girls prefer to be umpired by other females,’ says Keating. And the plan seems to be working with numbers growing in the 2023 season. 

    ‘Although we still need more field umpires to bridge the gaps…We have a template for success here, and it’s one that we can take to other clubs next year,’ Keating reflected. 

    If you’d like to get involved or join an Umpiring Academy in 2024, you can register your interest via email to

    Kel writes about the sports, sporting clubs and people contributing to our rich western suburbs culture. If you’ve got a story to share, contact us at

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