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It is not uncommon when a fan new to the National Football League wonders how the referees get scheduled for games. Is there a schedule for each week, like at your work? Do they bid against each other for highly desired assignments, like flight attendants?
Game officials are assigned to work NFL games via a process which considers a referee’s performance, experience, and seniority. This process, overseen by the league’s Vice President of Officiating, also takes into account the availability of an official or the crew he or she serves.
For the regular season, NFL game officials are assigned to crews of 7 to manage and oversee games. These same 7 game officials work together through the entire season prior to postseason.
For the playoffs and Super Bowl or the seasonal games scheduled in London, referees from all crews are selected independently based on performance. They are, in essence, all-star officiating crews.
Note: In reality, there is only a single Referee on NFL fields during games. That person is in charge of the other 6, who serve the specified positions of Umpire, Head Linesman, Line Judge, Field Judge, Side Judge, and Back Judge. The Referee gets the final call on disputes.
The NFL officiating crew selection process is quite thorough and thought out. Game officials are evaluated individually every single week, and together this is considered when assigning future games.
Officials who are deemed to have performed well have better chances of officiating high-profile games, e.g. between teams competing for the playoffs, or nationally televised contests, especially those scheduled for prime-time viewing.
The rest probably will get the less-important games, like between teams with few wins, or between squads in a contest minimally covered by television.
Television revenues are a huge factor for any major team sport in North America, and it is no different for the NFL. High-profile games attract more viewers, which in turn drive more in revenues from advertisers.
In short, the NFL takes game officiating extremely seriously ~ because poor refereeing could turn away audiences, which in turn might shoo away advertisers and the revenues they bring.
Everything is amplified during the postseason, when millions more viewers are tuned in, hundreds of thousands of fans attend games in person, and advertisers shell out big bucks to be part of each spectacle.
How serious is this? NFL officiating crews with a “rookie,” or 1st-year referee, are forbidden from calling games scheduled for prime-time television slots until mid-season at the earliest. The NFL wants the most experienced doing the most-important games.
With all those considerations, these squads of 7 officials work about 16 games, and they are “drawn” to specific games, not to teams, or stadiums.
The league is not terribly forthcoming about how often they make these crew assignments. It could be every week, but many assume crew assignments are selected many weeks in advance considering the need for travel arrangements ~ or even before regular seasons begin.
The league has specific rules for referee assignments. One to note is, there are rules that usually prohibit game officials from working more than 2 games of any single team. And, even if so, the league tries to get at least 6 weeks between those games.
So Raiders fans, no, you do not get the same awful ump every game. It just might seem that way.
The NFL tries to avoid repeat referees in the name of competitive fairness. However, for the pandemic-impacted 2020 season, rules such as this were relaxed due to government restrictions on crowds, and air travel.
For instance, that season a fan may have noticed the same officials for multiple home games of a club. That was part of an attempt to limit the need for air travel, which was restricted in fear of spreading the novel coronavirus.
Also for that special 2020 season, the NFL experimented with smaller officiating crews, of 6, or even down to 5 crew members.
It is important to note that there are 7 game officials on the field during NFL games. Two other officials assist that main crew ~ “up in a booth,” or “from the sky” ~ replay officials assigned by stadium, not by a crew that remains together.
That’s right, once a game official is assigned to a referee crew, he or she sticks with that crew the whole season. These crews even have their very own pre-season games to work together!
So if a fan believes they saw the same referee blow calls week after week, they are probably imagining things. The odds of a single, specific game official calling games for the same team are extremely low. (Except for the special 2020 season, of course).
For post-season game assignments, individual referees may be asked to perform the duties of an officiating position they did not do during the season. This, once again, is to fill out crews of 7 with individual assignments on the field.
In this system, it’s really all-star crews of officials doing games. However, playoff games may feature 7 individuals who never worked together prior to the postseason games they were assigned.
Talk about nerve-racking. Assigned to a contest to be watched by millions, side by side with officials with tendencies you are unfamiliar with! No pressure there!
Question: Do NFL referees get to keep their numbers like the players?
Answer: Yes, and it’s based on seniority. In fact, because well over 100 game officials are needed for a season, you can even see refs out on the field with triple-digit jersey numbers.
Q.: Are NFL referees full-time employees?
A.: No, they are considered independent contractors. They are considered part-time employees, without the benefit of health insurance. However, some are offered enrollment in a type of retirement investment package.
Q.: Can NFL game officials refuse assignments?
A.: Yes. They are not obligated to accept any assignment; they can decline without reason. However, this practice is not recommended, as declining too many assignments could hinder performance evaluations, and therefore reduce chances for plum game assignments.