Sundays in the glare of television lights and the punishing sun, six free days a week to ponder your life choices, and all the hatred that a stadium and millions of home viewers can send your way. What's not to like about the choice to become an NFL referee?
NFL referees must pay obsessively detailed attention to a game happening live in front of them, get out of the way of the players while still being nimble and fast enough to keep the action in your line of sight, and withstand the pressure to change calls from crowds, teams and coaches. Being an NFL referee is high-pressure, high-status and high-paid.
The NFL Referee Info Twitter account estimates salaries at "between $75k - $200k depending on experience" and says that even during the football season, refs can arrange to take weeks off. Since the season itself is only 17 weeks long, that's pretty great pay, and they're still free to take another job in the offseason, including working at practice camps. Most NFL refs are part-time employees, and many have full-time nonfootball jobs even during football season.
This career ladder is an old-fashioned one: You start local and work your way up. The career path mimics that of football players but on an extended timeline. Most NFL refs start in their hometowns refereeing at school and community games and then make it to the poorly paid minor leagues where they pay their dues. Eventually, they make it to the major leagues. Unlike players, they don't have to accomplish most of this while still teenagers. No degree can give you a shortcut.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that there were 18,610 umpires, referees and other sports officials working at all levels as of May 2017. The mean professional sports referee salary was $35,080 per year. Those employed by local governments averaged $31,330 per year, college coaches earned an average of $25,480, and those working directly for professional spectator sports organizations such as the minor leagues earned an average of $40,320.
While minor leagues pay salaries that could be described as token, unionized NFL officials of all job descriptions work under a 2013 contract that stipulates a salary of $173,000 per year. This is a significant raise from the $149,000 per year they were paid in 2011. That salary increases to $205,000 per year in 2019. That's for 17 weeks of part-time work.
Refereeing the Super Bowl or other significant games can earn refs a terrific bonus. In 2001, Super Bowl referees earned an extra $11,900 for officiating at that all-important game. Since that time, the bonus figure hasn't been announced, but it can be assumed that it has increased.
NFL referee salary estimates range between a minimum of $173,000 per year, which is the minimum for all NFL officials, plus bonuses to a much higher figure that is not publicly released.
One interesting tidbit is that part-time NFL officials are restricted to earning no more than 50 percent of their annual income from refereeing in the NFL. Another job – and a well-paid job at that – is a requirement. Referees' side gigs run the gamut from dairy farmer to high school principal.
Industry and Job Growth Trend
Jobs for all types of referees are expected to grow only 8 percent over the next decade, about the same as all other jobs. More people are joining organized sports, but opportunities for paid referee positions won't expand. Most of the 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, mostly through attrition.
Not only that, but most of the positions are part-time, even if well paid. The referee salary in the NBA is higher per annum, but they have many more games to oversee and a much longer work season. 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.
In 2017, the NFL announced to much fanfare that it was hiring 21 full-time employees. Only four of those were referees. Those numbers, including well-known referee Jerome Boger's salary, have not been disclosed but can be assumed to be higher than that of their part-time brethren.
If you love the game, have a sharp eye and fast feet, an appetite for competition and a solid well-paying job that can spare you for 17 weeks at a time, a job as an NFL referee could be in your future. Start coaching in your community and work your way up.