Football referees typically begin their careers by officiating at local high schools and middle schools. With experience and training, they can move on to refereeing college games. Officiating NFL games is the highest level and requires several years of experience and formal training, as well as special skills. NFL refs also earn significantly higher pay than referees at all other levels.
Pay Before the NFL
Referees need to gain several years of experience before they have any hope of getting a job in the NFL -- and getting to the big money. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that there were 15,570 umpires, referees and other sports officials working at all levels as of May 2012. The average pay was $32,600 per year. Those employed by local governments averaged $29,090 per year, while those officiating at elementary through high school games reported an average of $35,040.
Pay in the NFL
A referee that makes it into the NFL is rewarded handsomely. CNN reports that after weathering a lockout at the beginning of the 2012-2013 season, NFL referees who belonged to the referees union secured an eight-year contract stipulating a salary of $173,000 per year. This is a significant raise from the $149,000 per year they were paid in 2011. Furthermore, the contract also stipulates that the pay for NFL refs will increase to $205,000 per year in 2019.
Comparisons to Other Major League Sports
Pay for NFL referees compares favorably to those in other sports when you consider that they tend to officiate far fewer games. The NFL regular season consists of 16 games per team. That compares to 162 games for major league baseball, and 82 games for both the NBA and NHL.According to CNN, major league baseball umpire salaries ranged from $120,000 for new guys to $300,000 for seasoned umps as of October 2009. During the same year, the pay for NBA refs ranged from $100,000 to $300,000, while NHL referees reportedly earned between $110,000 and $255,000.
According to the BLS, jobs for all types of referees are expected to grow 20 percent between 2010 and 2020, faster than the projected growth rate of 14 percent for all occupations. However, most of those job gains are expected to be at the middle school and high school levels, as well as in the growing field of women's sports. Those who aspire to referee NFL games should expect intense competition for the few openings that occur each year.