Referee numbers are dwindling in the Waikato football league after a surge in abusive behaviours from players, coaches and parents.
Since the first ball was kicked this season, the WaiBOP Federation have been regularly notified and called upon to investigate incidents involving inappropriate and abusive behaviour rather than focusing on the management and delivery of competitions.
WaiBOP chief executive Karyn Walters said WaiBOP will be taking a firm stance against further abusive behaviour.
"Unfortunately most federations are seeing an increase in reports of behaviour that does not represent our game as we would wish," Ms Walters said.
"This can't continue and we want to make it clear that we have a non-tolerance policy to referee abuse and inappropriate behaviour towards others, regardless of anyone's level of involvement in the game.
"We are very fortunate in many ways to have a strong, passionate supporter base, however we need to ensure that this is directed positively."
The WaiBOP federation stretches across the Waikato and Bay of Plenty with hundreds of teams and with over a thousand players taking part.
Several incidents have been reported across the league and the wider Northern League this season alone, including two amateur football teams being expelled from a league halfway through the season after a series of run-ins with referees, with tensions so bad in one a game a young ref locked himself in a changing room to escape angry players.
Ms Walters said the effects of abuse are already visible with referee numbers dwindling, leaving games without any officials.
A former WaiBOP youth referee, who did not wish to be named, left refereeing as the abuse was taking a toll on his mental health.
"The abuse came mainly from the players themselves, which is somewhat understandable to a degree. Games tend to get heated, and in the heat of the moment, things get said that you normally wouldn't say," he said.
"However, it also increasingly came from coaches and other staff members. This to me was the biggest issue as these people are supposed to be the role models for their players, especially when these players are still young and impressionable. You often hear things coming from the supporters.
"Although they didn't affect me that much, it was still a concern, as abuse of referees seems to be so ingrained into the football culture that it has become a norm.
"It has become such a big part of football that to most people they don't even realise it's an issue."
He said a good example came from an U12 boys game, where abusive behaviour started from a coach, with the younger players then following his lead.
"After a few questionable tackles from one of the players I called him over and warned him next time it would be a yellow. Few minutes after that, another tackle. Instant yellow.
"The coach on the sideline instantly started yelling at me that it wasn't worthy of a yellow, which prompted the player to join in.
"These players were all still very young, so I was already hesitant to give out cards before the game. I knew I wanted to try and prevent it from even getting to that stage where I had to give out cards. Which is why I once again give him a warning, telling him that if he keeps arguing with me like that I would card him again.
A nice: "He's not going to do anything, just keep playing "from the coach and a few vulgar words from the player sealed the deal. He was sent off."
The referee said he had to leave the game as it was becoming detrimental to him.
"The abuse just started getting too much for me. When I first started to referee, it was still fun and I enjoyed it. However after a while it started getting too much. I was starting to dread even going to games.
"Why should I turn up, to make sure that the game is safe and fair for these players, only to be abused by those same people? Refereeing is a thankless job, and at the end of the day, trading in my mental health for these people who didn't even appreciate me most of the time was not worth it.
"Although it didn't cause any issues with my health, it certainly didn't help, potentially even making them worse. I just wasn't able to cope with the abuse. I can certainly say that the abuse is the only reason I quit," he said.
While refereeing numbers are dwindling, one coach said over-zealous parental support is also stunting player development.
Tai Ballantyne, who is head coach of Claudelands premier women's team, Waikato Diocesan's 1st XI and a youth team, said parents need to take a backseat role when supporting their children at sports games.
"It's always disappointing and frustrating collectively because those parents are looking at a moment that they weren't happy about and become vocal and as we know football is a team sport.
"For me, it's simple — no parent should be giving in-game instructions," Ballantyne said.
"In general sideline behaviour is okay, with the exception of those that have an idea of the game that is contradictory to the goals and outcomes of the team on game day."