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The Dagger: College Basketball Blog

How college basketball refs hustle for their pay

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Coaches swear a blue streak at them. Players deride them. Fans boo them. Some days -- especially during the high-stakes hysteria of March Madness -- it seems barely worth it to be a basketball referee.

But as the embarrassing calls made by replacement refs during the NFL referee lockout reminded a cranky nation, nothing compares to a guy who knows when to blow the whistle. The going rate for top-tier college basketball refs ranges from $1,000 to $2,500, plus travel and food expenses. The Post-Standard put the fee at as much as $3,000 for a Big East or Atlantic Coast Conference game.

Not all college basketball refs -- who work as independent contractors -- can make a living calling fouls. Amateur refs often hold "real" day jobs so that they can live the dream working games at night. As a 2010 ESPN profile on four refs pointed out, freelancing means no benefits, no pensions, no health coverage. To boot, most of these guys are two to three times older than than the young bucks they're policing on the hardwood, so the job -- and the travel between games -- can be grueling.

How grueling? According to StatSheet, the top 200 referees collectively averaged 52 games in the 2012-2013 season so far. The top 10 men in stripes, though, have called upwards of 81 games: At the top slot is Roger Ayers, who traveled to 24 states to officiate 93 ballgames. (Jamie Luckie and Bert Smith, though, win when it comes to frequent travel miles, with 26 states apiece.)

Back-to-back calls

Every year, there's always a question of whether these guys are working too hard. Back in 2010, John Clougherty, the supervisor of officials for the ACC, told the New York Times that the workload issue "has been an ongoing problem for 20 years," but coaches want those seasoned vets over and over. In 2011, John W. Adams, NCAA coordinator of men's basketball officials, opined to the Columbus Dispatch that the ideal refereeing schedule should average between 65 and 75 games; "more than 75 games and you're entering an area of what I'd call diminishing returns."

Officials like Big Ten associate commissioner Rick Boyages haven't been as concerned. He told the Dispatch that highly sought-after refs officiate 75 to 100 games per season, and everyone's under scrutiny.

Boyages said the Big Ten monitors its referees closely. Officials are required to look at a detailed performance review within 24 hours of a given game on a secure website. If an official's performance is deemed unsatisfactory, his schedule can be reduced or eliminated the next season. A ref can be removed from the current season's schedule, but Boyages said that happens rarely. (Feb. 26, 2012, Columbus Dispatch)

NCAA 24-hour rule

The NCAA does have a 24-hour rule: Refs can't work another tournament the night before an NCAA game. The downer is that while it may be an honor to handle an NCAA game, refs don't get as much money:

The NCAA pays officials less for the NCAA tournament than [referees] make a lot of the time in the regular season. The bigger conferences pay officials between $2,500 and $3,000 per game, out of which they must pay their expenses. ... During the NCAA tournament, officials are paid $1,200 the first weekend, $1,400 the second weekend and $2,000 if they make the Final Four, with the NCAA paying their expenses. (March 23, 2012, Washington Post)

The Post suggested it'd be a nice gesture to set aside a little something out of the $338 million that the NCAA puts towards championships, programs, and services, to make it worth the refs' time to focus only on NCAA tournament games.

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