We live in an imperfect world, but we expect NFL officials to exhibit flawlessness when refereeing games. No excuses—follow the rules to the fullest extent, preside over the contest fairly and let the players decide the outcome. Though it sounds simple, it's a mirage. Fans bark about missed calls in virtually every game, but wait until they understand the lucrative pay scale for the individuals in pinstripes.
When a referee blows a call, it's talked about during the contest, while coaches and players offer criticism following the game, but the NFL's official website reveals a 95.9 percent accuracy rate on all plays from the 2016 season. With that precision, officials deserve high-paying salaries.
It's evident when the proficiency in officiating drops. Look back at the Monday Night Football fiasco between the Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks in 2012 when replacement referees were on the job during a labor dispute between the league and officials:
Three weeks into the 2012 season, the NFL and officials' union came to terms on an eight-year agreement, which led to changes in pension and retirement benefits as well as incremental wage increases throughout the pact.
How does the payout system pan out for officials who draw widespread criticism in nearly every game but statistically perform at their best?
Difference Between Referees and Officials
Before delving into wages, it's important to separate referees from officials.
"Officials" is the general term for an entire seven-person crew that works a single game. The NFL operations site outlines specific duties for each member of the squad. Referees, umpires, down judges, line judges, field judges, side judges and back judges have unique responsibilities in correspondence with the action.
For distinguishable purposes going forward, we'll focus on referees, who manage these crews and make the final calls on infractions. To name a few, Ed Hochuli, Clete Blakeman and Pete Morelli would fit into the crew chief category. They're responsible for game flow and generally oversee their group of officials.
These managers earn more than the other six members of their crew. On the downside, more money leads to more criticism for the referees in white hats, which identify their prominent position on the field. What's the reward?
Breaking Down Regular-Season Payment Structure
With the difference between an official and a referee laid out, the payout scale takes a straightforward approach.
The league pays its officials a flat-base rate plus a payment per game. Typically, you can calculate in-season game check totals when multiplying by 16 through the year. Usually, officials take one game in a given week. Due to team bye weeks, every squad won't have 16 contests on its work schedule, but preseason and postseason play even the opportunities.
As a part-time staffer, a paycheck for each assignment added onto a base salary seems more than fair. The NFL doesn't disclose wages for officials, but the Gazette Review's Steven Kahn highlighted and estimated the high-end earners among officials during the 2016 season.
According to Tom Gerencer of MoneyNation, the average official banks a six-figure salary in part-time work through the season. As explained above, referees stand atop the financial food chain—on average earning more than half a million dollars after a 16-game slate.
Earning Their Base Pay, Responsibilities Beyond Game Day
Beyond games, officials attend functions and practices to improve their in-season performances. Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy touted the congregation between officiating crews and coaches during training camp practices:
ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert added context to a typical week for officiating crews off-camera:
"They live around the country but are all connected digitally via tablets. They receive evaluations from their previous game, download video to study, and arrive at the site of the game a day early for meetings and additional film study. They also must attend a series of offseason training sessions and an annual summer convention in Dallas."
When you don't see an official on game day, he or she may attend a function to gain a better understanding of existing rules and new regulations approved every year, which justifies the base payment.
Estimated Postseason Payout Structure
For those who don't view their job as a huge contributor to overall stress, when the bosses offer overtime, it's a no-brainer. Oftentimes, you earn time-and-a-half to inflate your paycheck. The NFL adopts a similar bonus payout structure for its officials, per Kahn: "Referees also receive large bonuses for officiating postseason games, which are more than double their per-game pay."
Of course, when it comes to playoff games, the league must have its best officials on the job. A poor call can knock out a Super Bowl team, and the bitterness that stems from shattered dreams never subsides among emotionally invested fans.
In 2013, then-senior vice president of officiating Dean Blandino introduced a three-tiered system for evaluating officials in which those on the top level would handle playoff contests for that year, per USA Today's Jarrett Bell:
"Blandino ... implemented a new evaluation process that goes beyond merely ranking officials based on the numeric grading system of previous years. Instead, it will group them in one of three tiers based on their performance. The top tier will be eligible to work playoff games."
It's a meritocracy at work. Those who perform well over time will have more opportunities to add to their wages. In 2017, the NFL pushed further to improve their product with a decision that should benefit customers and employees.
The NFL Adds Full-Time Officials
As mentioned, an official doesn't take off the striped shirt and whistle to become an average working citizen for six days. They study the NFL rulebook and fulfill off-field obligations in order to improve work performances. It's a part-time job with a take-home component and endless homework.
New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton saw the officials' part-time role as a detriment to the game, per Pro Football Talk's Michael David Smith:
"We're the only league with officials who have primary other jobs, which is really madness. We can pay these guys. They should be full-time NFL officials, and they should be working throughout the week, communicating. Every other sports league employs full-time officials. And ours, these guys all have other significant jobs. I just think it's very difficult to do."
Some officials have demanding jobs to think about away from the football field. Hochuli is a defense lawyer at a partnership. Former referee Mike Carey co-owns Seirus Innovation, a company that manufactures cold-weather accessories and equipment. Gene Steratore serves as an active co-founder of a janitorial supply company.
These officials have large roles with their primary jobs, which require attention to detail and concerted dedication. On the positive side, in a partnership or entrepreneurial role, there's an option to delegate workflow to others.
The NFL, via vice president of football communications Michael Signora, announced the intent to hire up to 24 full-time officials for the 2017 season:
The statement classifies the general pool as officials, not referees, which identifies one position within a seven-person crew. It further states full-time openings for all seven roles on a squad.
The decision to transition part-time staff into full-time employees boosts the pay scale across the board whether you're a line judge or a referee. In addition, officials have the choice to go full throttle on a stable career path with the league.
Comparing NFL Official Salaries to Other Leagues
When comparing roles within the NFL ranks, the average referee ($550,000) makes nearly three times the salary of average officials as a whole ($188,322). That figure lags behind counterparts in the other three American sports leagues, per Gerencer:
|Average Official Salaries Across 4 Leagues|
Nonetheless, the full-time employees will even the playing field. It's also worth noting the other leagues' season schedules require officials to work multiple games in a week. Finally, with a seven-person crew, the referee takes home a game check that more than triples the payment for a line judge's work.
Nonetheless, like most companies, officials with seniority don't feel slighted in salary. For those in tier 1 of the NFL officiating ranking system, bonus opportunities will eventually come their way during the postseason.