National Football League game officials can be your favorite person or your worst enemy, depending on what calls they make and how they affect your team. No matter how you feel about their officiating, you might be wondering how much do NFL refs make?
They might not have the same rigorous training routine that Tom Brady has, but they have no easy job. NFL refs need to be physically fit, understand the rules, and make accurate calls quickly. NFL refs need at least 10 years of officiating experience, with at least five of those years at the varsity collegiate level (with exceptions made for former NFL players and coaches). They also have to travel often to games.
Due to the televised nature of the sport, some NFL refs even achieve somewhat of a celebrity status and work on sponsorship deals.
And even if you might disagree with a call or not like the outcome, the NFL website reports that their officials make correct calls almost 99% of the time, with an impressive average of 154 calls per game—and that’s worth big bucks.
There is not much transparency and public knowledge around how much exactly NFL officials make, but here’s what we know about the NFL referee salary. While NFL officials include the roles of referees, umpires, down judges, line judges, field judges, side judges, and back judges, we’ll be focusing on referees below.
How Much do NFL Referees Make per Game?
As of 2019, NFL refs made an average salary of $205,000 per year, with a maximum annual salary of $270,000. There is no public information about the breakdown of numbers, but we know that it is made up of a base salary plus bonuses. Broken down over the 17-week regular season at one game per week, they might be paid as much as $12,000 per game.
The $205,000 number is just for the regular season. NFL refs get larger bonus checks for working postseason games, and those who officiate the Super Bowl may earn an additional $30,000-50,000 bonus.
However, it is misconception that refs only work on gamedays. To stay fit and sharp, refs practice throughout the week, regularly review footage, and prepare ahead of games. The NFL hosts clinics every year to get refs up to speed on any rules changes and to test their knowledge and physical fitness, and refs work training camps and preseason games.
NFL refs are all hired as part-time employees on a year-to-year contract, meaning that they do not receive benefits like vacation time or health insurance and can leave the league after any season. However, since they don’t have to work from the end of the season through May, vacation time might be less important to them. The NFL also contributes to 401K retirement plans for refs (the NFL previously offered pension plans until recently).
Do NFL refs Pay Their Own Travel Expenses?
Since referees have to spend a lot of time traveling to games throughout the NFL season, they do receive a stipend to cover their travel expenses, but the amount of the stipend is not publicly available. While the NFL will cover their travel expenses, refs usually have to make their own travel arrangements and do not travel with the NFL players. Refs tend to arrive at their destination the day before the game.
Do NFL Refs Have Day Jobs?
Many refs do have day jobs to supplement their income since officiating in the NFL is part-time. Mike Carey was famously an entrepreneur, inventor, and ski apparel company owner outside of being a ref. As an NFL official, Walt Coleman was also a dairy farmer, and Ed Hochuli and Clete Blakeman were also lawyers. The NFL is the only professional sports league that hires its referees as part-time employees.
There is a lot of controversy around this, and many have advocated for the NFL to make refereeing a full-time job to improve performance and prevent turnover in the offseason. As mentioned above, when they aren’t refereeing football games, some refs spend as many as 35 hours per week studying, training, and preparing for their next NFL game.
For the 2017–2018 season, the NFL did hire 24 officials (about 20% of the roster) as full-time employees, which temporarily boosted the pay scale. However, this ended during negotiations over a new collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and the NFL Referees Association, so all officials are still paid as part-time employees.
Who is the Highest Paid NFL Referee?
NFL referees who have the most experience make the most money. In the 2020–2021 season, four referees made $250,000 per year, including Brad Allen, Walt Anderson, Allen Baynes, and Craig Wrolstad. Two umpires made $250,000—Barry Anderson, and Steve Woods. Prior to retirement in 2018, Walt Coleman and Ed Hochuli were the most experienced and among the highest paid NFL referees. They were the longest tenured NFL referees with 28 and 27 years of experience, respectively. Towards the end of their careers, they each received more than $3,000 per game.
Sarah Thomas Makes History in 2021
Sarah Thomas, who became the first woman to officiate a Super Bowl game in 2021, is the highest paid female referee and earns almost $250,000 as well, although there are only five female referees currently in the league.
How do NFL referee salaries compare to other professional sports?
Even though the NFL is a hugely popular, multi-billion dollar industry, NFL referees tend to make less than other refs. A lot of this is due to the gig’s part-time nature and the league’s seeming unwillingness to pay their officials higher salaries. While salaries for NFL refs keep increasing, they are not on par with other sports. Also, the NFL has the largest pay gap between players and officials.
NHL referees average $275,000 per year, MLB umpires average $300,000 per year, and NBA referees average $375,000 per year. With those earnings for each league, there is a potential to make up to $500,000 or more with bonuses.
Conclusion on How Much NFL Refs Make
As you can see, NFL refs make a comfortable salary even though they are working part-time. Obviously NFL players make more that refs, but being a ref in the NFL is not a bad deal. To be a ref in the NFL is difficult, but officiating games can make a comfortable living.