In the National Football League, a team of referees officiates each game according to the guidelines delineated by the NFL rulebook. There are many reasons why referees are necessary but the two primary ones are 1) to ensure player safety and 2) to make sure that no player or coaching staff is exploiting an unfair competitive advantage.
In 2012, the NFL Referee's Association butted heads with the NFL over contract negotiations pertaining to the collective bargaining agreement. The result was that for the first three weeks of the season, 'substitute refs' filled in, and in-game chaos ensued. Rules were poorly enforced and in some instances (most notably a last second hail mary pass in a Monday Night Footabll game between the Seahawks and the Packers) incorrect calls determined the outcome of the game.
The fans and league personnel were outraged. After week three of the 2012 season (there are 17 weeks in the NFL regular season), the NFL succumbed to the demands of the Referee's Association because they simply had to in order to maintain the integrity of the game. Competent refereeing was—and still is—vital to the NFL's brand.
In 2013, after the dust had settled from the 2012 lockout, the average NFL ref's salary was around $170,000 per year. By 2019, that figure will be closer to $200,000. Keep in mind that The NFL is a multi billion dollar corporation, so that number will continue to increase over time. Also keep in mind that the NFL season (including the playoffs) spans from September to February, so many refs work other jobs in the lengthy offseason, jobs that are often completely detached from football. Ed Hochuli, for example, is a prominent NFL ref but also a partner at a Phoenix law firm.
There are currently about 120 active referees in the NFL and about 70,000 football referees working at the high school and college levels. After doing some quick math, you realize that only the cream of the crop make it to the top. That said, many—if not most—of the 70,000 refs working at the high school and college levels don't aspire to ref in the NFL. They simply ref as a side job or hobby because they enjoy doing so and love football. College refs, however, make on average $500 per game, so they're very serious about their jobs. The top college refs—the ones working for The SEC and other major conferences—make much more than $500 per game.
It takes years to rise to the top and earn the big bucks. There's no boiled down recipe or formula for this process although there is one common denominator: experience. Every league has certain minimum 'on field ref hours' that you need in order to even qualify for a job application.
The first step before applying for any referee job is to learn whether or not your state requires accreditation to be a football referee. Some states do, and if they do you'll have to pass a test or take a very brief course. This process will be short and relatively painless. To be a high school football ref, there's a 99% chance you'll have to pass an accreditation test, but we're getting ahead of ourselves.
You need to learn the rules of football inside and out. Being a football enthusiast isn't enough. As a ref, you're being paid for your expertise on the rules of football. Start by studying an NFL rulebook to get a hold of the basics. But since pop warner rules and high school football rules are different from the NFL's, you'll have to sharpen your knowledge once you know which particular age group and/or league you'll be reffing for.
To work around children or high school kids, you'll have to pass a background check. To work in the NFL, you'll have to pass a thorough background check since the league has to be cognizant of refs being paid to call a game a certain way.
Most refs start young, like when they're in high school. They volunteer to referee youth football or junior high football. When you're first starting out, there are also accreditations and certificates you can get from a professional school or a community college. If you're having trouble finding your first job, especially if you get into the industry late, one of these certificates might be a good idea. They vary in price, but they're normally in the range of $1,000.
Across the United States, there are local referee associations for different districts and counties. When you're first starting out, do some research about your local association then reach out to an official of your local association. If you're having trouble finding a contact at your local association, simply go to a high school game or a pop warner game and seek out the ref afterwards. Ask him or her how they got their job and if they needed to receive any certifications.
Don't ask for a job right away when you initiate contact; simply talk about how you're enthusiastic about honing your referee skills and you're wondering if the local association has any suggestions as to how you can improve. You'll likely be invited to attend weekly or monthly meetings. These meetings are a great way to network as well as learn the nuts and bolts of refereeing. Every season there are minor rules changes and tweeks. One hot button issue right now is player safety. High school football, for example, has adopted very strict rules pertaining to helmet to helmet tackling. At the college level, 'Targeting' is a relatively new rule that immediately ejects any player who initiates a helmet to helmet tackle. The Ivy League has banned tackling from practice in order to promote player safety.
Once you know the rules of football and you're staying abreast with any developments or rules changes though your local association, you simply need to find work. Some associations (especially ones in densely populated areas) may suggest that you get certified through a particular program, but most won't. That said, as mentioned above, mostly every state regulates high school football officiating. What that means is that you'll have to pass a written test to get certified, but that process is very simple.
Think about it: every semi serious football game needs a ref. Even many intramural leagues employ professional refs. When you're first starting out, you need to get out there and hustle. Market yourself aggressively and be creative. Think of leagues, games and situations that need referees. You can also sign up to be a substitute referee for leagues such as pop warner that may be saturated in terms of the number of referees on their roster.
At first you won't be making much money (maybe as low as $20 per game for Pop Warner) but as you work your way up the ladder, you'll get paid more and more. Your goal should be to become a high school ref, then a college ref, then a minor league NFL ref to a legitimate NFL ref. (The NFL minor league is like a training league; 20% of minor league refs make it to the NFL.)
Rising through the referee ranks is almost analogous to an athlete making it to the professional ranks. You need to be scouted out by somebody who works for a particular conference or league. For example, if you're reffing a high school game and one of the parents in the stands works for the SEC, you might catch that parent's attention. This is partly luck, but people who are prepared tend to be the lucky ones. Networking is also an important aspect of rising through the ranks, but even if you network like crazy, you need to have that 'X-factor' on field when calling games.
So what's this X-factor? Well, there's no simple answer, but let's give it a shot.
To start, you need to know the rules of football and be consistent in the manner in which you call a game. Holding and pass interference, for example, are largely at the ref's discretion. The game happens so quickly in real time and these penalties are so common that you have to have a consistent system for officiating these two particular infractions.
But even if you know the rules down pat and have a solidified officiating system, you have to have a level head and the balls to make a call in the heat of the moment. As mentioned above, the game moves quickly in real time. What separates the great refs from the average ones is the ability to process the situation quickly, make a call and then take the heat so to speak. Every call you make will upset one team. Players will be in your face. Coaches will be yelling at you. Fans will be booing you. You face criticism no matter what call you make; you have to have the balls and the wherewithal to make the right call.
This X-Factor or 'sixth sense' often comes with experience and repetition, although some refs never attain this level of mastery and discipline. The ones who do are calling major college games and pro games.
At first, you'll make lots of mistakes; you'll make horrible calls. You simply need to keep going and adjust so that your mistakes only happen once.
Salary and Lifestyle
As mentioned above, NFL refs make around $200,000 per year and that's not including playoff bonuses, super bowl bonuses, health and pension benefits. But these NFL ref jobs are extremely competitive. Most NFL refs have been in the football reffing industry for at least fifteen years—since they were high school students!
There's only one female ref in the NFL; the rest are men which perhaps means that it's currently more difficult for females to become NFL refs.
Football season is Fall and Winter. The rest of the year, you'll hard pressed to find consistent reffing jobs. Most refs have other 'full time' jobs and ref on the side. It's smart to have a part time job when you're working your way up the ranks since high school refs can get paid as little as $20 per game.
Most refs actually 'ref' one night per week. High school football is played on Friday night. College football's played on Saturday. Pro football on Sunday. In terms of hours, you'll have lots of flexibility as a ref.
That said, reffing is stressful. In many locations, you'll be working in frigid weather conditions. You'll be working in the rain and in the snow. You'll also take a lot of heat for the calls that you make. People take football very seriously; many young football players are counting on football to pay for their education. Whether you make the right or wrong call, your call can have a ripple effect on a lot of different people. In a way, every call that you make is a lose lose because somebody's going to get pissed, and if you don't call it, somebody else is going to get pissed. This is why the 'X-Factor,' the 'I don't give a crap, I have to make the right call attitude' is what makes the great refs great.