How Much Money Do NFL Referees Make? Not $173,000

NFL Referees make a probable $550,000 per year, nearly three times the $173,000 reported by most sports and news outlets. The discrepancy is one of basic math. Articles citing the $173,000 average NFL referee pay figure refer to a 2012 press release from the NFL. That release describes an agreement between the Referee Association and the league. What the agreement does not say is that the average referee pay will be $173,000 per year. Instead, the agreement sets the average pay for all 135 officials in the NFL at $173,000 in 2013, with that number rising to $205,000 by 2019.

The problem here is a failure to distinguish between referees and officials. There are 135 officials in the NFL but only 17 referees. The referees can be thought of as managers, while the pool of all officials includes both referees and their “employees.” That is, line judges, field judges and so on. With an average salary for all these 135 officials at $173,000 in 2013, it’s highly unlikely that the 17 top “managers” or referees would also earn an average pay of $173,000. The numbers and tables below show a more realistic picture of NFL ref earnings vs NFL official earnings.

NFL Referee Salary Facts

nfl-referee-moneyNFL referees very probably earn more than half a million a year or $550,000. That number is based on the following math: There are 135 officials in the NFL and 17 of them are referees. The average annual pay for all 135 officials was $173,000 in 2013. That number is calculated at a slightly higher $188,322 for 2016. The lowest pay for any NFL official is reported at $78,000. That’s the rock-bottom salary for a rookie line judge for example. We can estimate that the highest pay for any non-ref official probably sits at around $160,000. Doing some quick guesswork, the average pay for all 118 non-ref officials probably rests somewhere in between at around $135,000 per year.

With 135 officials earning an average of $188,322 per year, the total pay for the entire bunch comes to $25.4 million. Yet, if 118 of those officials earn an average of $135,000 per year, they account for only $15.9 million of the total. That leaves fully $9.3 million a year to be split between the 17 referees. That in turn gives an annual pay for those referees of no less than $550,000 per year. Even assuming the non-ref officials make an average of $160,000 per year (unlikely, with the lower echelon earning $78,000), the referees would still have to make at least $380,000 a year each.

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Average NFL Referee/Official Pay by Year: $188,322

During the regular season, the average salary for all NFL referees and officials is $188,322 in 2016. That’s based on a 2012 report from the NFL that sets the average NFL official salary at $173,000 for 2013, rising to $205,000 by 2019. Applying regular annual pay adjustments to smooth out the numbers between those two data points gives the yearly average NFL ref/official pay in the table below.

To elevate the average pay for all NFL officials from $173,000 to $205,000 per year from 2013 to 2019, it’s necessary to increase salary by 2.87% per year. Reports from the early 2000s show an increase of 11% per year in the years before the 2012 agreement. Based on that math, the annual ref pay started out at about $101,769 back in 2001.

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Also see: Tom Brady Net Worth

NFL Referee/Official Pay for the Playoffs: $18,832

referee-nfl-money-by-yearHow much do referees make for the playoffs? Again we’re faced with the problem of “referee” vs “official.” One issue is that the terms are used interchangeably, though most people do understand that there’s technically only one referee on the field during any given game. That ref is the only one on the field wearing a white hat, while all the other game officials wear black hats.

The NFL doesn’t release the amounts referees and other officials earn during the playoffs. However, it’s not hard to do a little reverse-engineering. There are 17 weeks of game play during the regular season. We know that in 2016 refs and other officials earned an average of $188,322 in regular season salary. That means those officials were payed on average $11,078 for each regular season game. That’s fudging things a bit, since refs don’t get paid only for working on Sundays. They also work preseason games, practices and off-season clinics and camps as part of their annual salary. Still, we can assume the playoffs have their own raft of additional duties, so our calculation will do for a ballpark figure.

NFL Referee Pay Per Game

There are 17 weeks of regular season game play. NFL game officials make an average of $188,322 per year. That means the 118 non-ref officials make  on average $11,078 per game, barring extra work outlined in the section above. Referees meanwhile earn a more likely $550,000 per year. With the same number of games, they earn $32,353 per game.

NFL Referees Can Make Over $129,000 for the Playoffs

Assuming the rate of $11,078 holds for a playoff game, an NFL game official would make $44,311 during the playoff season in 2016. Applying the same percentages used to figure regular season salary creates the numbers in the table below.

Chances are good that some referees earn a lot more than this $44,311 playoff season pay average. First consider that playoff games are higher profile and would logically carry a higher pay scale. Second, look at the pay for those games in terms of higher referee vs regular official pay. If a regular official earns an average of $11,078 for a regular season game, then it follows that an NFL referee earns a higher $32,353 for the same amount of work. That’s based on their calculated $550,000 annual salary. Finally, with four playoff games in the offing, the playoff pay for a ref who works all four weeks would be $129.412.

NFL Referee/Official Pay for Playoffs
YearEstimated Pay
2007$23,946
2008$26,340
2009$28,974
2010$31,872
2011$35,059
2012$37,882
2013$40,706
2014$41,874
2015$43,075
2016$44,311

NFL Referee Pay for the Super Bowl: $37,664

How much money do NFL referees make for the Super Bowl? The NFL doesn’t say. With that out of the way, here are some best-guess calculations. Online reports put the pay for a Super Bowl referee at $12,000 back in 2001. Raising that by the same percentage as salary each year gives a figure of $37,644 in 2016 referee Super Bowl pay. That seems like a likely average pay level for the seven non-referee game officials on the field during the Super Bowl, but it seems low for a ref. Consider that a full ref makes about $32,353 per regular season game.

A better way to get at the NFL referee Super Bowl pay question is to look at how the regular official pay differs from a regular season game to the Super Bowl. If our math above is correct, a non-ref official makes $11,078 for a regular season game and $37,644 for the Super Bowl. That’s a gain of about 339%. Applying that gain to the referee’s regular season pay of $32,353 per game gives a Super Bowl paycheck of $109,941 to whichever lucky ref gets to lead the officiating charge on the day of the big game.

NFL Referee/Official Pay for Super Bowl
YearEstimated PaySuper Bowl
2007$20,354XLI
2008$22,389XLII
2009$24,628XLIII
2010$27,091XLIV
2011$29,800XLV
2012$32,200XLVI
2013$34,600XLVII
2014$35,593XLVIII
2015$36,614XLIX
2016$37,66450

Also see: How Much Money Do Players Make for a Super Bowl?

NFL Referee Salary vs Other Major League Sports: Short End of the Stick?

How do NFL referees fare against officials in the NBA, MLB and NHL? By the averages, not very well. The average NFL ref can expect to make $188,322 in 2016. By contrast, the average NBA official earns $375,000, while average pay for officials in the NHL and MLB sits at $212,500 and $235,000 respectively. Why the big shortfall? At first glance it might appear to be a question of more referees with more rookies. Certainly the NFL has significantly more officials than the NBA, MLB or NHL. While that doesn’t affect averages per se, it does mean there’s more room for lower-tier rookies with lower pay that can skew averages downward.

Another reason for differences in pay could be the number of games played. A sport with a shorter season could be justified in paying its refs less. However, the NFL has the longest season of any major league sport with 215 days. Compare that to MLB’s 152 days, the NBA’s 136 days or the NHL’s 118 days. Length of season is only one factor in how much a ref works though. The NFL’s 17 weeks of regular season game play has games at a rate of one to two per week per ref. Compare that to three games per week in the NBA and NHL and five or six for MLB.

NFL Referee/Official Salary Comparison
SportAverage Salary
NFL ref salary$188,322
NBA ref salary$375,000
NHL ref salary$212,500
MLB umpire salary$235,000

nfl-salary-vs-other-sports

How Much Money do NFL Referees Make from their Day Jobs?

NFL referees are often called out for making a lot of money for not very much work. Some fans complain that they only work 17 Sundays a year but make over $150,000 for that effort. In truth, refs work pre-season games, trainings and practices. Still, there’s no way their work can be rationalized into a full time job. Most refs in fact do have quite lucrative day jobs. Most don’t appear to need the extra income they get from refereeing.

The table below shows the day jobs of five of the league’s 17 referees, with accompanying salary estimates. Brad Allen is the CEO of Venture Express, a profitable shipping company. Clete Blakeman is a partner in a law firm and likely earns over $600,000 per year, if posted average salary values for that job are any indicator. The “Total Earnings” column shows the estimated $550,000 NFL referee salary added to each ref’s estimated non-NFL pay.

How Much Do NFL Referees Make from their Day Jobs?
RefereeDay JobEstimated Non-NFL SalaryTotal Earnings 2016
Brad AllenCEO, Venture Express Shipping$180,000$730,000
Terry McAulayRetired NSA programmer$50,000$600,000
Walt AndersonRetired dentist, Coordinator of Football Officials$250,000$800,000
Clete BlakemanLaw firm partner$600,000$1,150,000
Jerome BogerInsurance underwriter$80,000$630,000

Also see: Dak Prescott Net Worth

Officials vs Referees: By the Numbers

The NFL doesn’t publish a breakdown of NFL referee pay by job description. There are eight NFL game official titles, from Referee to Replay Official. We’ve reverse engineered all salary data below from the known average of all 135 NFL officials. There are 17 NFL official “teams,” each led by a referee and each containing seven to eight of the other officials. A salary breakdown like the one shown below would give the total known salary figure of $25.4 million for all NFL officials in 2016.

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Should NFL Referees be Full Time?

There’s been a good deal of speculation around whether NFL referees should be full time employees. Some say creating full time positions for this job would professionalize the position and clean up what is seen as a slew of poor officiating in the sport. Others say creating a full time position won’t help, since it won’t change the basic fact that by and large, NFL refs are only needed on Sundays.

Some point to the discrepancy between player salaries and ref salaries. The total for all NFL player salaries came to $3.6 billion in 2016 vs $25.4 million for refs. That means the players get paid 141 times more than the refs on the whole. However, taken on a per-player and per-ref basis, the average player earns about 11 times more than the average ref. With the high level of skill required to play in the NFL, that salary multiple seems to make sense.

The NFL meanwhile says that each ref call for all of the 40,400 plays made in  the 2015 season was reviewed various times from multiple angles. Their calls were correct 95.9% of the time. While that isn’t perfect, the NFL maintains that no job is ever done perfectly, but refereeing comes very close.

If you liked reading about how much money NFL referees make, try this article about how much money NBA players make or this one about how much money NFL players make.