WANTED: dependable, smart, athletic individuals for fast-paced, stressful position. Must be mobile enough to move quickly within an area at a moment’s notice and learn hundreds of pages of regulations and procedures. Absences are not tolerated. Must be willing to endure copious amounts of verbal abuse from large, intimidating men who earn much a much higher salary; as well as abuse, threats, and occasional airborne objects from individuals who have no respect for or clues about the requirements, burdens, and goals of this position.
Is this a job posting for a customer service representative at the Beverly Hills Department of Motor Vehicles? Actually, it’s a starkly accurate description of the typical professional sports official.
Would You Want To Be a Sports Official?
When viewed through this lens, it’s hard to fathom why anyone would want to be a baseball umpire, football official, basketball referee, or hockey on-ice official. After all, almost everyone has a story about an official they’ve seen being subjected to various forms of mistreatment by people who would never say similar things in any other situation.
However, thousands and thousands of sports officials go to work almost every day at all levels of sport, from T-ball and youth soccer to recreational softball and hockey to high school and college interscholastic sports. And they also experience a high level of job satisfaction by being a part of a sport they love – all while staying in shape, performing a much-needed service, and enjoying the camaraderie of working as part of a close-knit team to accomplish a goal.
Typical Officiating Pay
They certainly don’t do it for the money.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, people whose employment falls under the category of “umpires, referees, and other sports officials” have a median salary of just $23,290 per year. For officials who are married and have two or more children, that’s a figure that’s below the federal poverty line. The number takes into account all levels of officiating from YMCA sports and city rec leagues on up. The bulk of the officials are employed by municipal agencies and/or stand-alone entities, many of whom seem to be perpetually strapped for cash; and unfortunately, there tend to be more pressing fiscal needs in these agencies than boosting officials’ compensation.
That said, there are a select few officials who, after years of hard work and dedication, finally make their way up to the big time: pro sports. And although these jobs come with an unbelievable amount of scrutiny from many different sources, they do benefit from a generous salary when computed on an annual basis. Here is a closer look at how much money that officials earn in all of the U.S. major sports leagues.
National Football League
Rookie NFL officials tend to make around $34,000 for a full season’s work, while those who have multiple decades of experience can pull down around $120,000 each season. Keep in mind that NFL officials can work as many as 21 weeks (four preseason games plus 17 weeks in the regular season), which averages out to a nice per-game figure of about $1,600 to $5,700. If they happen to work a playoff game, each official will get between $7,500 and $10,000 for their time. The good news is that since there are seven officials needed for each NFL game, there can be up to 102 different officials needed for each week of the regular season – as opposed to a maximum of either 45 or 60 in the other sports on any given night.
National Hockey League
In contrast, only two referees and two linesmen work each NHL match, so there are fewer spots to fill for ice hockey officials. Based on a full season, linesmen can earn between $72,000 and $162,000 for an 82-game season, which averages out to between about $1,400 and $2,000 each game. For referees, the pay is generally between $110,000 and $255,000 per season, or roughly $1,350 to $3,100 per night. Of course, the major difference between NHL officials and their counterparts in other sports is that they have to be able to skate – and do it as well as and for as long as the players do.
Major League Baseball
During the regular MLB season, the league puts an umpire on each base; but unlike hockey, there are 162 games in a regular season. Major league umpires have a starting salary of around $120,000 each year, while senior umpires can make upwards of $300,000 per year. It’s hard to compute a per-game average, since umps also get four weeks of paid vacation each baseball season. But unlike football and basketball, baseball does benefit form a well-established minor league system for professional umpires. Umps who work in the Rookie League can earn between $1,900 and $2,100 each month, while those in “High-A” make between $2,000 and $2,400 each month. For umpires at the AA level, the pay rises to between $2,300 and $2,700 per month, with minor league pay topping out at between $2,600 and $3,500 per month in AAA. However, even the longest minor league regular seasons are only five months in length; which doesn’t come out to an enviable annual salary if you’re stuck in the minors.
National Basketball Association
Some say that NBA referees have the hardest officiating job in pro sports, simply because of the constant high tempo of the action and the myriad of minute details they must observe at any given time. And there are only three of them on the court at one time. Since starting NBA officials take home about $100,000 and very experienced ones are paid around $300,000, that averages out to an approximate range of between $1,200 and $3,600 per game for an 82-game season. Not surprisingly, NBA refs also get a lot of free sneakers, since they ostensibly wear out shoes at a much faster pace that the typical American worker.
Sports Officials: A Rare Breed
Keep in mind that the officials you see at pro sporting events represent the best of the best at what they do. And it’s impossible to reach the pinnacle of your chosen field without an extraordinary amount of skill, experience and discipline. And while you will very occasionally discover a Tim Donaghy in the bunch, the vast majority of these officials are just typical, hard-working guys (and a few ladies) who take the field, court or rink looking to do the very best job that they can each and every day or night.
So the next time you leave a pro sporting event and begin reviewing everything that happened in the game in your mind, realize this: if you don’t think about the officiating, you know that the referees, umpires and officials did their job well.
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