How Much Do NFL Refs Make?
In this day and age, NFL referees tend to take more flack than anything else. Even a bang-bang, full-speed call is analyzed to the frame by fans and talking heads alike. It is one of the toughest jobs in sports, and it definitely doesn’t come with much fanfare or appreciation.
Which begs the question, “How much do NFL refs make?” Surely, there has to be a reason why the zebras endure criticism on the regular, aside from a love for the game. Read on to find out how much NFL referees are bringing home, as well as the ins and outs of what it takes to get into this line of work.
So, how much do NFL refs make? The answer to that question has fluctuated quite a bit throughout the years. Until the early part of the 2000s, professional referees and officials – not just in the NFL but in other professional leagues – could not count on the income to pay the bills.
As the league continued to grow to epic heights beginning in 2000, referees began earning more serious wages.
Now, the average salary for an NFL referee is roughly $205,000 per year. This is negotiated as part of the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement (or CBA) by the NFL Referees Association, something that comes due roughly every five years or so. During these negotiations, teams, owners, and officials negotiate on shared revenue percentages, pay, safety rules, television rights, and more.
On the high end of the scale, referees can make just north of $250,000. For the more experienced officiating crews, there is more money to be made. That said, most professionals at this level are experienced, so the gap between the bottom and top earners isn’t as large as one would expect.
This is up slightly from around 2015 or 2016 when it was estimated that NFL officials brought home around $180,000 per season. As league revenues continue to climb, everyone is getting an even larger piece of a growing pie.
Another interesting thing of note is that the referees don’t actually get a weekly paycheck. They are paid out for a season of work per collective bargaining agreement rules. The total amount paid out includes each game officiated as well as any playoff or Super Bowl bonuses.
For a long time, the answer was a resounding “no.” In the early days of the NFL-AFL merger, referees and players alike were hardly making enough to pay the bills. It would be commonplace to see both sides working at least a part-time job during the year in order to supplement income.
It took a lot longer for NFL officials to reach full-time status. Players in the 1980s and beyond began earning enough salary to justify not working a “normal” job. This is somewhat made up for by the fact that most athletes today work out and train year-round, essentially earning their checks in a different manner.
The influx of money into the league through sponsorships and TV deals has changed this situation drastically. Nowadays, NFL referees can expect to make a very solid living as they make around 4x the average American salary.
Now, being a referee is a full-time gig. That is part of the justification for a cushy six-figure job (having to get calls right and deal with the merciless public is another reason). There is a lot more to the position than meets the eye, and we will cover more of that in a few sections below.
The question of how much NFL refs make isn’t a simple one. There is the amount that they make for the regular season – roughly $205,000 to $250,000, if not slightly more – and then there are the bonuses that officiating crews receive for working playoff games and the Super Bowl.
The NFL playoffs are a critical time of the year. For that reason, the league brings in the most experienced officiating crews, the ones that score highest according to NFL standards. There are usually only a few crews that work the various playoff games, leading to one crew working more than a few over the course of an NFL playoff season.
The rate of a playoff bonus is a bit hard to nail down. Some estimates have seen referees earn $1,500 per playoff game on top of their annual flat-rate salary. On the high end, the more experienced officials can earn around $5,000 per playoff game. For the best of the best, that can equate to $260,000 to $270,000 before we even get to the biggest game of the year: the Super Bowl.
Officials who are asked to regulate the NFL’s championship game make big-time money. It is estimated that, on top of regular season salaries and postseason bonuses, referees can earn between $40,000 and $50,000 for being asked to officiate The Big Game.
For the best-graded and most experienced of the NFL officiating crew, it is not uncommon to bring home between $300,000 and $330,000 by the end of the season. For a profession that once was steeply underpaid, it has become a great way to earn money.
Until recently, finding out what an NFL referee makes has been like pulling teeth. The league didn’t disclose any information on what its officials make, likely because they receive enough harassment and derision from emotional fans as it is.
It still doesn’t stop us from asking the question. Just like the game itself, the role of officials has evolved throughout the years. So, too, has the paycheck that comes along with it.
The Early Days
No one knows for sure what NFL refs were making back before and immediately after the merger. It is most likely that they received peanuts for their efforts, making far more from full-time jobs than by being a professional referee. Of course, this was during a time when players also had to work jobs because being a professional athlete did not pay well.
The 1980s and 1990s
As league revenues began to rise to substantial levels in the 1980s and 1990s, the league began to understand the need for full-time professional officials. The pay, however, didn’t quite match the expectations that the league set forth.
Granted, referees were now making a few thousand dollars over the course of a season, far improved from the early days. But it is a far cry from what they make now, with most needing at least part-time jobs to help stabilize their income over the course of a year.
The New Millennium
With the league becoming a billion-dollar industry at the turn of the millennium, referees and officials began getting a piece of the pie. Referees began making six figures over the course of an NFL season, with incentives included for officiating playoff games and Super Bowls.
Professional officiating, in general, was being seen in a more serious light. To train and develop more accurate officials, leagues needed to invest time and money into those individuals. For the first time ever, referees could earn a comfortable full-time wage despite only “working” from September to February.
At one point, being an NFL ref was considered to be a part-time job. Like the development of players training year-round, officials do much the same. That said, unlike a full-time job, the referees do not get benefits but do receive a 401K plan.
When the offseason comes around, referees don’t just wait around for the season to start. The majority of them attend training camps and minicamps. The goal here is to practice officiating for the coming season, essentially honing their ability in much the same way that the players do.
With greater repetition and experience comes a keener eye for the game. The more experienced officials gain something of an advantage by continuing to sharpen their skills in advance of every NFL season.
To some, being an NFL referee looks like a pretty sweet gig. After all, you get paid – in the six figures, as it turns out – to be right on the field in the middle of the action, watching everything unfold as closely as possible. But the gig definitely comes with its stressors.
Unlike the fans in the stands or those watching at home, an NFL referee must remain neutral and unbiased at any time. If any bias is uncovered, it can compromise the integrity of the game. More importantly, it puts the official at risk of being removed from their position and affiliation with the NFL Referees Association.
Maybe after hearing all of that, you are ready to give it a try. How do you make it into the professional referee ranks? The road is quite long, and just a few lucky professionals manage to ply their trade in the biggest football league in the world.
1. An Education is Necessary
The most common misconception about NFL officials is that they can just walk in off the street with no background. For most NFL officials, a college degree is a major advantage. Any of the sports-centric degrees will make it more likely to get a look from the league than those who possess no such degree.
Having an educational background in sports may not be a necessity, but it can give an aspiring referee a leg up on the competition. Having a sports-related degree shows a deeper knowledge, understanding, and appreciation of sports.
2. Training is a Must as Well
Even if you have just obtained your bachelor’s degree, you can’t advance to the big stage without having some sort of training. There are colleges, third-party training schools, and officiating organizations out there that offer training programs.
Enrolling in one or more of these programs can be the best way to earn a deeper understanding of the role and responsibilities of an official. It can also give trainees a chance to better acclimate to the officiating landscape, something that changes with each passing level.
3. State Registration
NFL Referees must begin the official path to the NFL with high school-level games. Becoming officially registered to referee high school football games has become an unofficial mandatory track for reaching the NFL.
Registration requirements and standards can vary from state to state. Each has its own high school sports regulatory body, the entity that hands out registration to qualifying officials. Seeking out these organizations and knowing what their requirements are is a great place to start.
4. Experience, Experience, Experience
While each of the prior steps is a necessary part of the process, prior experience cannot be replicated. Getting properly educated, trained, and registered is the first step in the process. With those assets in hand, officiating high school football should be the next step on the totem pole.
Officials typically begin by cutting their teeth in the high school ranks. The ones that perform better can quickly move up to college football leagues, even refereeing for specific colleges. The path to higher levels of college may begin with lower levels like D-III and the sublevels that lead into NCAA Division I.
The more games a referee can get under their belt, the better. The most ambitious referees find a way to get in on any game possible, growing their experience and expediting the track forward into the professional ranks.
5. Get Certified
One of the final steps in the process is to get certification. Spending time at special camps and training sessions is always a good thing, even if the NFL doesn’t specifically require it. Any extra credentials or certifications may earn a longer look from the NFL compared to other candidates.
Officials will need to work at least five years of college games in order to meet basic NFL standards. Like teams, the league sends scouts to certain games in order to seek out talent to bolster the future ranks of NFL officials.
Wrapping Up: How Much Do NFL Refs Really Make?
Being an NFL ref isn’t easy. They’re under a lot of pressure to make quick, game-changing decisions. But the pay is getting better. Nowadays, an average ref makes about $205,000 a year. The top refs? They can make over $250,000. And that’s not all. Playoff and Super Bowl games come with extra cash, sometimes pushing yearly earnings above $300,000. So, while it’s a tough, full-time job, it does come with a pretty nice paycheck and a front-row seat to all the action.
Walt Anderson (now retired), Brad Allen, and Craig Wrolstad are among the NFL referees who have reportedly reached a peak salary of $250,000 at some stage in their careers.
In postseason contests, referees can expect to earn double what they make during regular-season games. Other reports show that NFL refs make an estimated $12,000 per regular-season match.
Super Bowl referees in the U.S. can earn anywhere from $25,486 to $668,979. The average salary is around $122,079. Most referees—about 57% of them—make between $122,083 and $304,034. The highest earners can make up to $668,979.
The annual earnings for NHL referees can reach heights of $430,000. This peak salary is generally available to officials with at least a decade and a half of experience. Those just breaking into the field can anticipate a base salary of around $200,000. Referees also benefit from yearly pay bumps and are usually tasked with officiating a maximum of 73 matches each season.
To be eligible for a role as an NFL referee, one must have a minimum of a decade’s experience in football officiating. Within that decade, at least half of the time should involve overseeing significant college matches. Prior to reaching this level, extensive training is a prerequisite.
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Jake is an SEO-minded Combat Sports, Gaming and Pro Wrestling writer and successful Editor in Chief. He has more than ten years of experience covering mixed martial arts, pro wrestling and gaming across a number of publications.
Facts checked by Eamon Doggett