GALESBURG, Mich. (WOOD) — As West Michigan gets ready for high school football to kick off Thursday, fans of schools in one conference may have to dig deeper into their pockets when buying their gameday tickets.

The conference raising its ticket prices for all sporting events is the Southwestern Athletic Conference, which includes Galesburg-Augusta. There, new ticket prices for middle school events are $4 apiece, while those for high school are $6.

In an Aug. 14 release, Galesburg-Augusta Athletic Director Mike Woodard said the primary reason for the price bump has nothing to do with the schools or any of the programs, but rather increased pay for referees.

When asked, a spokesman for the Michigan High School Athletic Association did not say what the new pay rate is for referees or how much it went up but said 8,200 officials are currently registered — well below the 15-year average of 9,500. Woodard noted several games and events are canceled each year because there are not enough officials for a full crew.

“We have seen a drastic decline in the number of officials over the past few years,” he said.

So why are the numbers down? According to Woodard, “the No. 1 reason is the abuse that has been directed towards officials by public spectators.”

“Raising the pay will hopefully attract more officials while we work on better ways to support our officials,” Woodard continued.

Joe Wallace, Woodard’s counterpart at Portage Central High School, agrees.

“The average number of folks jumping into the profession is going down. We are seeing shortages across the board. If you extrapolate (that) out in five, 10, 15 years, we won’t be able to provide these opportunities for our student-athletes,” Wallace explained. “Therefore, that cost increase for those officials is meant to incentivize people officiating.”

Portage Central, a Southwest Michigan Athletic Conference member, made the same move in 2022 after single-game ticket prices were unchanged for more than two decades, Wallace said.

“We’re just hoping that it’s not going to break the budget for too many families. But it just kind of meets us where we need to meet to run quality programming,” he explained. “If we don’t have those folks out there in the stripes … supporting us as officials, this whole thing grinds to a halt.”

Some districts might have exceptions for free or discounted tickets. In Galesburg-Augusta’s case, students can get in for free with their student ID during regular season home games. The same perk can be for senior citizens during SAC conference events with a special pass they can pick up at the middle and high school offices.

Football fans, especially those at SAC schools, are encouraged to check with their district’s athletics department for ticket pricing and information before heading to the game.