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After watching zebra-striped referees running amongst the players in National Football League games, many fans wonder about what it would take to be one of them: a game official in the NFL. Besides dreaming about what the experience would be like, many fans wonder about the rewards.
NFL refs make on average about $200,000 a year, with the highest-paid few reaching salaries up to $250,000 annually.
However, there are only 121 of them in a country of 330 million-plus residents, indicating that the odds are greatly against those who try to make it to the top level of football officiating.
For the average American, the pay actually is quite good. On top of that, you get to consistently commingle with some of the most famous athletes on the planet; and be on the field during some of the biggest sporting contests. Oh yeah, and you get to be on television, too!
However, it’s a long road to get there. And staying there is an ongoing challenge.
The primary requirement to be a referee in the NFL is 10 years of experience as a referee in any level of football from high school on up; with half of those having to be at the college or semi-pro levels.
It’s a reason why the average age of NFL referees is 51. There is no fast and easy way to become an NFL referee. It takes a decade to get there, and those who make it rarely quit to vacate spots for others.
For the most part, it’s a matter of doing the work, getting the experience and knowledge, and … waiting for someone to retire.
These referees truly love, and are dedicated to, officiating contests at the very top level of the game.
On top of the decade’s worth of experience, NFL referees are required to hold membership in an accredited football organization. There are no educational requirements, though NFL referees are expected to know the League rule book inside and out.
College football referees make an average range of about $57,000 to over $61,000. However, some very top-level NCAA football referees can pull in over $300,000 a year!
The challenge is, there are multiple levels of play in NCAA football ~ and the lowest-paid college game officials make as little as $11,753 annually!
So the pay range is outrageously spread. Plus, college game officials must pay for their travel expenses, unlike their counterparts in professional football leagues.
So the question is, can they do it with what one study figures is an average take-home pay of $4,336 a month?
Pay for game officials of high school games varies depending on several factors including the state and region in which they work games, the cost of living there, the level of play (varsity vs. junior varsity vs. freshman), and qualifications.
Basically, high school referees can expect pay from $50 to $100 per game. Some may earn more per contest depending on circumstances, such as playoff or championship games, or whether travel or other expenses are involved and funded.
One study has high school referee pay at an average around $12 per hour, which if you sent a 4-hour minimum per game (to cover the game and pregame preparation time), would be $48.
There is no particular age, nationality, region of the United States, or any other differentiator that makes for better game officials. They come from all walks of life and from all over the nation, from high school games out in rural Iowa, up to big college bowl games in the Southeast, and on up to the Super Bowl.
If you looked closely at who they are, what would you find? Well, start with the fact that a vast majority of them referee part-time, and work regular full-time careers.
Here’s a partial list of the real career jobs of NFL referees away from their work in stadiums:
- Wealth management consultant
- Certified public accountant (CPA)
- High school principal
- Software engineer
- Sales manager for a car battery sales business
- Civil litigator (attorney)
- Insurance underwriter
- Dairy farmer
- Founder of a sanitary supply company
Three of the NFL’s 121 referees during the 2022 season were female. One of them is Sarah Thomas, who became the very first woman game official for the NFL in 2015. She started as a Line Judge, and a couple years later was promoted to Down Judge.
Some of the 121 NFL referees are paid by the league to officiate full-time, by getting involved with planning and consulting between games during the season, and helping iron out the rule book in off-season.
But a majority of NFL referees are part-time independent contractors, who as such do not get health benefits. (Though some do qualify for the league’s own retirement program for them).
The National Football League takes its officiating extremely seriously. After every game, refs are judged on their performance, and too many poor reviews can get a game official undesirable assignments, or even termination.
It’s no exaggeration: NFL teams run over 41,000 plays per season, and every single one of them is very carefully reviewed by the NFL Officiating Department.
Part of the time these refs must dedicate to the profession is spent on education and training, namely of the ever-changing rules, but also to stay abreast of modernizing mechanics that might help them officiate better, or protect their safety.
Considering that NFL games average about 153 plays. A regular game official who works 14 regular-season games is evaluated on about 2,200 games per season.
Besides the stress of knowing the league will carefully review every move and call you make every game, a whole heck of a lot of other things make game officiating at that level very challenging.
Let’s start with the physical demands. Ever remember seeing an overweight referee in an NFL game? You won’t, not because there are official physical requirements, but because they can’t.
They couldn’t sprint down the field with a kick returner as he sprinted toward the end zone. Well he could, for a while, and not very close to the runner.
People burn calories just standing, and NFL referees must be on their feet for hours at a time. Adding to the physical stress are the elements, as no NFL game gets postponed due to the weather.
So on any weekend, a referee could be baked by the sun, frozen solid, subject to vicious freezing winds, buried in snow, or worse.
Then there’s the working conditions. These referees are running around some of the largest, strongest human beings on Earth. And, these athletes are very well protected with hard armor, and run at top speeds pretty much every play.
And there are 22 of them doing this every play. The odds for injury is great as a football referee, if you do not know the proper positioning and mechanics.
In baseball, umpires are trained to get into positions best for the view on plays. That is, try to get within a few feet and at a 45-degree angle from a base, to see and make calls.
In the NFL, referees also want good views. But they also are trained on the best places to get to to make those calls ~ while not getting in the way of play.
From time to time, watching games on television, fans might see a referee get clobbered by a player who just didn’t see the official; or even a ball deflect off a ref who was watching for players holding each other and not for the ball thrown in his or her direction.
The pay might be nice, and the glamor that comes with it may be quite attractive. But make no mistake, refereeing in the NFL is dangerous business.
Question: How many hours a week do NFL refs work?
Answer: About 20 to 25 hours per week during the regular season; and another 5 or 10 more hours for the head Referee who is charged with overseeing the entire 7-member crew. (This does not include travel, which can significantly eat a lot of time).
Q.: Why would an NFL referee quit?
A.: Aside from physical or mental ailments that force retirement, stress can nudge some game officials to get away from it all. NFL refs get judged on their performance every week, and the results determine the quality of games assigned in the future ~ including playoff games and maybe even the Super Bowl.