Pay & Salary

How Much Do NFL Refs Make?

February 22, 2021

Due to its wide appeal and success, those involved with the National Football League earn celebrity status and their salaries often follow. This creates a substantial pay gap between those employed by the NFL and those who are not. In this article, we discuss how much NFL referees make on average, the requirements needed to be an NFL ref and how to become one.

What is a referee?

A referee often called a "ref," acts as an official authority figure in a variety of sports. They remain on the sidelines as a neutral party in games making quick calls and decisions about what they see. Referees enforce the rules of the sport in which they're officiating, sometimes ejecting players for poor conduct. In the realm of football, NFL referees are held to higher standards, requiring advanced experience and higher pay.

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How much do NFL referees earn?

Football is one of America's favorite pastimes. It continues growing in popularity, making it a profitable, multibillion-dollar business. Salaries for all those involved with the National Football League remain on a steady incline, including referees. Pay for NFL officials varies depending on role and seniority, most of which earn a considerable amount. On top of a base salary, NFL referees also earn a substantial pension plan. However, after some debate, pension plans will convert to 401(k) programs shortly.

NFL referee average salary

After a series of lockouts and protests, the NFL and the Referees Association agreed-upon higher compensation for all game officials. NFL referees now make an annual salary of $205,000, an increase of around $56,000 from their previous amount. In comparison, the average referee outside of the NFL makes around $16.26 per hour.

Why does the NFL pay so much?

The National Football League might be a national sports provider, but it's also a business. Their products are the games, the players and the officials. Due to the success of the league, those involved earn celebrity status, adding additional value to the league itself. They also earn media access and are paid additional money for brand promotion. Consider these individuals as salesmen, as they play a role in selling both products and the league. In corporate business, salesmen are often compensated for the amount of revenue they generate. As the NFL generates billions in revenue, their players and officials are compensated accordingly.

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Requirements for NFL referees

There are a few major requirements for becoming an NFL referee. The NFL's only mandatory qualification is an extensive experience on the field. The following list outlines requirement areas in more detail:


There are no specific education requirements for working in the NFL as a referee. However, it's generally expected that those interested have at least a bachelor's degree in any major. Those majoring in Sports Health, Sports Management or a related field are more prepared for the role.


As one of the major requirements, candidates for the NFL referee role need extensive experience on the field. The NFL requires at least 10 years of officiating in football games. Of those 10, at least five should include major college games.

Good health

All candidates for the role of any referee must be in good physical health. The role requires individuals to be on their feet for long periods of time, often running. Previous experience as football players or coaches helps, as those individuals are more prepared for the role.

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How to become an NFL ref

Earning a spot in the National Football League as a referee takes time and experience. The NFL only accepts those with years of experience, advanced knowledge of the game and open schedules. The following steps outline how to become an NFL referee:

  1. Earn a bachelor's degree.
  2. Obtain training.
  3. Obtain state registration.
  4. Gain experience.
  5. Earn certification.
  6. Get noticed.

1. Earn a bachelor's degree

Although not a major requirement, most NFL referees have a college-level education. Specific majors are less important, however, those with sports-specific backgrounds have a greater chance of entry into this role.

2. Obtain training

Colleges, officiating organizations and third-party training schools offer programs for aspiring referees. These programs offer a deeper understanding of rules and gameplay and also specific lessons on ethics, good sportsmanship, expectations and practices of referees, and interacting with coaches on the field.

3. Obtain state registration

Most referees begin their sports careers officiating high school-level games. Doing so requires registration within the state they practice. Every state has different requirements, however, most registration processes include a written exam. To qualify for this exam, candidates need training as required in the previous step.

4. Gain experience

With proper training, education and registration, the next step involves getting on the field. As stated, most referees begin at the high school level. From there, they either move on to colleges or leagues. However, most remain at the high school level for three to five years before gaining enough credibility or connections for roles at higher levels.

5. Earn certification

Some referees become certified by attending special training sessions. While this is not a major requirement for the NFL, all additional credentials are taken into consideration. Those with special certification might have greater chances for employment by the NFL.

6. Get noticed

After at least five years of officiating college games, most referees meet the basic eligibility requirements for the NFL. The league sends scouts to games. They never reveal when they're going to specific games and only attend for the sole purpose of seeking out new talent. Getting noticed requires referees to always work at their best, to the highest standards of the game and of themselves. When considering certain individuals, the NFL checks the frequency of their work along with their officiating schedule for the past three seasons. This includes schools, dates, game locations and positions worked.


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