Side Hustle Series: I’m a Referee (AKA I Get Paid to Get Yelled At)

(Guest post by Tom as part of our Side Hustle Series)

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.

Have a side hustle of your own you’d like to share? Let us know!

(Photo by pj_vanf)

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  1. Lisa July 18, 2013 at 7:01 AM

    I do that too! Started last year at triathlons – was sort of down on it after a very frustrating event where there was a lot of yelling and blaming and pointing fingers (all at the judges although imo, we were the only visible target due to our uniforms), I was going to quit. But when the season opened this year and I realized that it’s relatively easy money, I continued. Glad I did – change in the mgt of my association has made things a lot better (and now they pay on time too!)

  2. Free Money Minute July 18, 2013 at 7:03 AM

    Tom, great article. I have always thought about officiating, but I have never taken the formal steps. I live in Michigan also, so thank you for some state specific information that will benefit me should I choose to go that route.

    1. Tom July 18, 2013 at 8:45 AM

      Thanks! I definitely encourage you to look into it! The ref in me says “We always need more officials.” The coach in me says “Anyone would be better than the guys we have for our soccer games.” ;) There will certainly never be enough good officials!

  3. Brian July 18, 2013 at 8:12 AM

    I used to be an umpire for high school baseball. I didn’t take too much verbal abuse because umpires in my state has the power to throw out fans too. If the fans refuse to leave you can call the game as a forfeit and that team loses. So it was pretty easy to keep control.

    Now I ref games for our local hurling club and have been asked to travel to some other clubs (paid) to be impartial. I have yet to do it because of having a small child, but I might do it some next year.

    1. J. Money July 18, 2013 at 11:31 AM

      You can call the game a forfeit?? Wowwww.. that IS some powerful stuff!

  4. fentonce July 18, 2013 at 8:13 AM

    The assertion that referees are being paid for being yelled at remind me of my very first job after collage where the boss yelled at every minute he saw me… I think that’s what he paid me for also. captivating post i may say

  5. Michelle July 18, 2013 at 8:14 AM

    Great post! I have friends who coach and ref for wrestling and they make a decent amount of money.

  6. Christopher @ This that and the MBA July 18, 2013 at 9:25 AM

    I pay to get yelled at at home :-) by my wife….lol jk..I think being a ref is a great way to make some side money additionally you are active which is overall good for your health…win win in my book..

    1. J. Money July 18, 2013 at 11:32 AM

      Well quit doing dumb things! ;)

  7. Richard July 18, 2013 at 9:27 AM

    I’m a high school football referee in Western PA. I love my side hustle for many of the same reasons that Tom cited. As a former DIII football player, reffing enabled me to stay in touch with a game I love, while not demanding the hours necessary as a coach. This fall, I’ll be working on a “crew” every Friday and I am really excited about it.

    I love reffing, but potential side hustlers should know that the uniform and required seminars are not free. It cost me nearly $250 to purchase the entire uniform my first year! Also, it takes time to work your way up the ladder. However, if you love the game, then I would agree that reffing is a great hobby and side hustle!

    1. Tom July 18, 2013 at 10:37 AM

      Yep, the uniforms and gear can certainly amount to some pretty costly expenses, especially if you start moving up the ladder. My first softball uniform ran me about $100, which I paid for in 3 games, but that is still a pretty tame cost for a uniform.

      Soccer and football are the toughest because of the unpredictability of weather. In high school, there are three different color referee jerseys, meaning you need to buy six (long and short sleeve) if you want to be fully prepared for cold weather. At $40ish a pop, those costs add up – and that’s just the outer layer jersey.

      I have a friend who asks for Dick’s Sporting Goods gift cards every year just so he can restock the gear he wears underneath his football uniform. UnderArmor is great, but certainly not cheap.

  8. John S @ Frugal Rules July 18, 2013 at 9:27 AM

    Great overview Tom! My Dad reffed soccer and basketball for years when I was growing up and playing both sports. It was nice money, but man do the parents go nuts. He even had one threat physical action…just a BIT too far if you ask me. ;)

    1. Tom July 18, 2013 at 1:50 PM

      I’ve seen some insane things with parents! Wrestling is probably the craziest. I saw a parent run onto a mat and stop a wrestling match and push down the official before being restrained. However, in his defense, the kid was being choked and the ref didn’t see it. Still, crazy stuff!

  9. Brian @ Luke1428 July 18, 2013 at 9:46 AM

    I coached basketball for over ten years. One summer I decided to take a gig officiating basketball for a church youth rec league. I never appreciated how difficult a referee’s job was until that experience. I had a different perspective on the game and it helped me settle down a bit on the sidelines as a coach. No way a ref gets every call right…the game is too fast paced.

    1. J. Money July 18, 2013 at 12:52 PM

      Great perspective indeed! Esp for a coach to have.

    2. Ilya Zhitomirskiy July 30, 2018 at 11:42 AM

      Especially if only working in a 2-person crew. A basketball official cannot see everything on the court, and that problem is made worse when there are only 2 officials present (the standard for any level below high school varsity), because there are blind spots in each official’s designated primary area of responsibility (it is hard for the Lead to see across the lane, and impossible for the Trail to see what is happening near the sideline away from him). Transition coverage is also inconsistent in 2-person crews. I know this because I am a registered high school official in basketball (and baseball, football, and volleyball) in Maryland, Washington, D.C., and Northern Virginia, and I have experience working in both 2 and 3 person crews for basketball. A 3-person crew has an easier time in these situations, because the outside officials (the Trail and Center) each are responsible for one sideline, and can see action on their side, and the Lead is free to move to the other side to provide assistance as needed (this is called a “rotation”). Transition is easier, because one official can concentrate on each wave of players moving down the court, as opposed to the Lead having to stay back in a 2-person game. The money might not be there for consistent 3-person games below the varsity level, but I think that competitive youth leagues (travel leagues), men’s leagues, and tournaments should seriously consider contracting with local associations to provide 3 officials to each game to provide a superior quality of floor coverage, better game management, and a safer experience for the participants. With enough good will and flexibility (the association paying supplements to officials (Normal 2P fee is $30/official, if officials want $25 for a 3P game, league pays $20/official, association pays $5/official) , agreements to rotate pay among the 3 officials in a crew (A,B,C work together, each gets paid for 2 games while working 3), officials being assigned unpaid games on occasion, or splitting the normal 2-person fee in 3 instead (Normal 2P fee is $60 each, officials get paid $40 each)).

      It may seem that I am pushing for 3 person crews in basketball wherever possible because of my self-interest as an official. While that may be a factor, I want any readers to appreciate the hard work put in by basketball officials when they have to work games consistently shorthanded from a position of disadvantage.

  10. No Waste July 18, 2013 at 10:06 AM

    I will never forget how brutal some parents would be with the referees at my little league games. Really awful stuff and terrible behavior to model for the kids.

    You’re earning every single dollar.

    1. Tom July 18, 2013 at 12:23 PM

      It’s always tough and unfortunate to see parents get overboard. I think teaching has really allowed me to take a step back and worry much less about wins and losses, but it still is amazing some of the actions I have seen by otherwise normal people.

  11. James Lathrop July 18, 2013 at 12:13 PM

    I was referee in my late teens to early twenties for soccer. You can make some decent money and you learn to respect referees a whole lot more! Great read! I should take those classes again…

  12. Christine @ ThePursuitofGreen July 18, 2013 at 12:49 PM

    Sounds like a crazy side job! It seems that you have to a lot of self control to be a ref. My uncle happens to ref for high school soccer. He’s absolutely hilarious in person and his normal voice level is yelling. He also probably yells back if anyone tries to argue with him. I can imagine it would be interesting to see.

  13. Vanessa Dawne July 18, 2013 at 12:49 PM

    For my dad, being a hockey referee became a 2nd career — with the added bonus of great physical health. He started for free when my brothers were in minor league then moved up to paying jobs for ‘Old Guys’ hockey & never looked back. It was with his ‘hockey money’ that my parents were able to visit countries all over globe.

    Always busy during the winter months, it became full-time after he retired — averaging an amazing 70 games per month! At his 70th birthday party, I met other refs & players who said Dad skated better than some 30-yr-olds & was very well respected by players. Although he was still raring to go, the league finally made him ‘retire’ when he hit 75 — perhaps worried Dad would get hit by one-too-many pucks or squashed by some goon in full hockey gear. ;-)

    Only problem? Now, a couple years later, he’s ‘bored’ doing work around the house & complains he’s getting ‘fat’ — yeah, right.

    1. Tom July 18, 2013 at 1:43 PM

      70 games a month, wow! I’m sure the most I’ve done a month doesn’t come anyway close to that… maybe 30ish? And that’s counting hour-long intramural games.

      Umping softball this summer definitely paid for my recent vacation – and then some! A lot of referees I know use their extra income specifically for vacations or similar “fun” things.

  14. Pauline @ Make Money Your Way July 18, 2013 at 7:48 PM

    A friend of mine is a basketball referee but her circumscription is very large so she spends a lot of time driving to the game, which reduces the stipend. It is a lot of fun though, she loves it and getting paid to work out is pretty sweet!

  15. Brian July 21, 2013 at 1:14 PM

    I used to be a soccer official growing up, definitely a good way to make some spare cash. Why does everyone have to yell at you though?!? Haha, I totally understand this one.

    And yes, Broomball is amazing.

  16. George Batty September 22, 2017 at 3:51 PM

    I have been a volunteer Little League umpire for district 12 for 8 years. I have never gotten more than a drink and a hotdog. In Tucson, Az. I believe there is money, otherwise where does the money go. No different than soccer referees. But baseball little league umpires are not paid a penny unless you are a kid umpire, which the real umpires train. The kids get paid ~$15 a game. Adult real umpires, all that I know, don’t get a penny. I suppose the UIC gets paid and the district manager gets money, but the person on the hot sun getting hit by bats and balls, don’t get paid a penny.
    Soccer referees are paid for less work, less time and less rules to remember than Baseball umpires. Then after the game a person comes from a bank or some resource and cash is given to every soccer referee. They don’t pay taxes, no traceable money.
    Very unfair, unlawful when the soccer referees don’t pay any taxes. Cash under the table. I have seen it. My roommate is a soccer ref. and laughs at me when I gear up to umpire home plate in >105 degree weather. If I ask a upper little league umpire supervisor, they lie and tell me our league will get better. I don’t like it and I don’t like the continuous lying by Upper Level Supervisor Little League individuals. Someone tell the IRS. It is not right.

    1. J. Money September 25, 2017 at 12:14 PM

      Yeah, that is weird?? I’ve never looked into that here in the DC area, but def. doesn’t make sense?

    2. Big Bubba March 22, 2018 at 5:33 PM

      Nobody likes a tatle-tale Danny

    3. mark December 5, 2018 at 12:05 PM

      I refereed soccer in Tucson for the club soccer leagues. The referees don’t get paid. All are volunteers who do it for the love of the game or because their kid is a player. So I don’t know for what organization your roommate is a ref but the club league that you see playing at Rillito Park on saturdays in Tucson are all Volunteers.

    4. Gabi October 4, 2022 at 1:50 PM

      I get paid like 35- 45$ a game as an AR for soccer. I might referee 4 games in a weekend. So, on a good weekend I make 180$

  17. Sucker October 26, 2017 at 8:02 PM

    I heard from the Umpire In Charge at the final championship game (after umpiring more than 30 games for the spring season), “oh I found out Arizona is the only state that doesn’t pay the Little league umpires.”
    I thought it was less funny than he did.
    I continue to say, “I’m going to stop umpiring Little League”, but I don’t umpire selfishly. I do it for the kids. I end up doing it every year anyway. So call me a sucker. Because I’ve seen the referees for soccer getting paid cash from under the picnic table. It just isn’t fair. The soccer refs. complain they don’t get paid enough? I wish I just got a gas card, I buy all my gear and learn more than 1700 rules for Little league. Soccer has 17 rules and they run around in shorts like a girl. I’m really sick of it. These unpaid taxes the soccer refs are getting away from paying ends up being in the hundreds of thousands of dollars in Tucson Arizona.

    1. J. Money November 1, 2017 at 1:41 PM

      Ugh, that’s lame… good for you for still doing it because you’re so passionate. I’d much rather be doing something I love for no pay than pay for something I hate!

    2. Ilya M Zhitomirskiy July 30, 2018 at 11:45 AM

      What about registering with the AIA to do high school baseball? Even if you might not have the time to actually do high school baseball, you will still be able to get in contact with the local high school association, get training, and be able to work paid baseball in the spring, summer, and fall.


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