Being a referee is hard. Let’s put that right out there. You are signing up for a job where the expectation is that you will get yelled at, often unjustifiably, and you’re supposed to not react and continue to do your job. It is the hardest job I have ever had and may ever have. I may or may not have been called a racist on one occasion. (By a women’s Taiwanese recreational team! Go figure.)
The guys wearing the stripes on television are impossibly good at their job, despite what most sports spectators would believe. I know this because I was once aspiring to be a college basketball referee. Now, I officiate sports on the side both for fun and some really good side change.
How I Got Started
My career path as a sports official began at the college intramural level. For $7.35 an hour, I got paid to ref intramural soccer games. It was one of the lowest paying campus jobs, but you got to be outside, you got paid to get a workout in and the hours were super flexible. Then I picked up basketball and broomball (the most fun sport I’ve ever played – basically ice hockey except with a ball instead of a puck, a “broom” for a stick, and you’re on shoes and not skates.). The following year I worked everything I could: soccer, basketball, flag football, broomball, mini-soccer, softball. I picked up as many hours as I could, I worked hard at it and I started to become pretty decent.
My second year I was encouraged to go to some state and regional tournaments, where intramural officials from various schools worked tournaments and were evaluated and trained by officials that were already working full schedules at the high school and college levels.
From there I made some connections and began working high school games. High school soccer games brought in about $70 for a junior varsity/varsity double-header. Basketball games paid similar bounties. It always depended on the school district or conference.
How Much I Make Officiating
In 2011, I was lucky enough to be invited to officiate a national basketball tournament at the University of Texas. While it was not a paying gig, I was flown out to Austin and while working games I was evaluated and trained by NCAA and NBA officials. I was even selected to work the “National Championship” of intramural basketball. The entire experience was one of the most amazing times of my life.
With some of the connections I made, I was poised for college basketball reffing and the glory of $1,500 game checks (you know, when I made it to the Big Ten…) when my career as a teacher began. The beginning of that career coincided with the beginning of my basketball coaching career and, consequently, the end of my reffing career.
However, one sport that fit with my teaching and coaching schedule nicely was softball. I still umpire adult slow-pitch softball. At $30 a game, 4-6 games per week it’s a great supplement to my regular paycheck for 12 weeks in spring and summer. This summer, I am looking at about $1,600 in officiating income. In college, when I was working summer softball, fall soccer, winter basketball, and spring soccer, I was bringing in up to $5,000 for the year.
How to Become a Referee
It really, really varies by sport. Soccer has the most organized way of beginning an officiating career. Taking a USSF (United States Soccer Federation) entry level class for officials gets you certified to ref little kids soccer – which can be tough or annoying if you’re not a teenager, but that’s where you have to start. A year of training while grabbing $20 a game and another training class gets you up to some teenage club soccer where you can start earning bigger paychecks and more games by exhibiting your aptitude for the job.
For other sports, it is best to first talk to somebody that is a member of a local officials association. In Michigan, all high school officials are required to belong to an officials’ association for the sport they work. They can direct you to the classes and camps to get you started and can help you get youth or recreational games before dipping your toes into the much more competitive and high school arenas.
For adult recreational leagues, contact the people that run the leagues. They often will be looking for experienced umpires or referees for their competitive leagues, but would be willing to get you started (or point you in the right direction) with some younger kids recreational games and allow you to hone the skills necessary to take on the tougher games.
If you are still in college, intramural sports are great to officiate. It is very low stress (well, comparatively), earns you some money and can provide some great connections while you’re still young. Young officials that can take the heat are a commodity.
Pros to Reffing:
- It is fun! Officiating in overtime of a high school basketball game is incomparably exhilarating.
- You get to work with kids and help them learn at the younger levels
- The $/hour rate can be fairly high depending on the sport and level
- Helps you stay in shape!
- Adult rec leagues provide low-stress, but often high-income opportunities
- You become an expert at managing conflict
- Depending on the sport, you get to work outside, which is nice if you’re used to desk jockeying
Cons to Reffing:
- You get yelled at – have I made this point enough?
- For some sports, you need to maintain certain levels of fitness
- The higher the level, the more difficult the job becomes
- Weather. Why does it have to be so unpredictable?
- There can be significant start-up costs: clinics, classes, uniforms, gear, etc (all of which you can write off for taxes).
Good, dedicated officials are always in need. In some sports (for example, lacrosse in Michigan) there is such a deficit that coordinators are begging officials from other sports to try it out. It takes an amazing level of physical and mental focus, but it can be fun too. And of course, there’s nothing more fun than working a couple competitive, exciting games outside in nice weather and being able to walk home with an extra $80 or $100 in the bank.
Tom is a 26-year old high school teacher in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He blogs at Teaching Down Debt where he is chronicling his quest to pay off $72,000 of student loans by the age of 30.
(Photo by pj_vanf)