Steph Curry, the highest-paid player in the 2020-21 season, earned a whopping $45,780,966.
Gregg Popovich, the highest-paid NBA coach, earned about $11 million in that same time period.
Both players and head coaches are instrumental to determining the outcome of an NBA game and they’re well-compensated for it.
But what about the third group of people, the one that sometimes has more influence on games than the first two combined?
Put away the tin foil hats, I’m not talking about the gamblers or the NBA brass, both of which have been alleged to have rigged more than a few NBA games for higher TV ratings.
I’m talking about the people that all NBA fans love to hate – the referees. Truth be told, they have one of the toughest jobs in the NBA.
Making the right call on a play that takes only a fraction of a second to unfold and having some group of people hate you no matter what call you make definitely isn’t for everyone.
Given how one call can determine an entire match, or even playoff series, you’d figure that the people who do this job have to be paid pretty well, right? Well, that’s what we’re going to find out today.
How much do NBA refs actually make?
Compared to an NBA waterboy or the average Joe in the stands, NBA refs are paid extremely well. However, their annual salaries are nothing compared to the majority of the players and coaches they interact with in every game.
The NBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement, the document that regulated things such as the salary cap and the maximum and minimum player salaries, sets the lowest NBA rookie salary at around $900k per year.
By comparison, an NBA ref will make anywhere from $180k to $550k a year, with a reported average of $375k. The exact amount depends on their status/experience, the number of games they officiate, and the type of game they officiate.
According to some reports, entry-level referees will be paid around $1,800 per game. Once they have five years of experience under their belt, they get the status of veteran officials.
That status comes with the obvious increase in salary, but even more important is the eligibility to officiate playoff games. If you’re an NBA referee, the postseason games are where the real money is.
The pay for a playoff game gets bigger with each round. The most experienced officials get assigned to the Finals games. Each one of those nets them around $27k. Even a first-round game will net a ref around $5k.
These top opportunities (and salaries) are reserved for the best of the best. Names such as Scott Foster and Tony Brothers come to mind. Some senior referees also move into other roles away from the hardwood. For example, Monty McCutchen now serves as a trainer for future NBA refs.
The refs also get a ton of perks on top of their base salary. The NBA covers their accommodation and travel expenses, they have a retirement fund, they get free gear.
Just like the players, the refs also even have their own association that represents their interests and negotiates with the league on their behalf – the National Basketball Referees Association (NBRA).
If you’re thinking about becoming a professional referee yourself, remember, your salary and perks come at the cost of someone always disagreeing with the calls you make. And don’t forget it’s a full-time job that spans the entire seven-month NBA season – with job requirements that demand a deep understanding of game rules and the ability to make quick decisions.
What about other basketball league referees?
It’s difficult to find accurate pay data for WNBA referees, but because the WNBA generates less attention and money than the NBA, the compensation for refereeing games is also lower. Some reports suggest an average salary of $180,000.
An NCAA basketball referee who officiates college basketball games can expect to make $150,000 a year, although once again, the figure varies considerably with experience.
How do NBA ref salaries compare to other major sports leagues?
As surprising as it may be, the NBA refs are, on average, the best-paid officials out of the four major sports leagues in the US despite some leagues making more money than the NBA.
Let’s start with the most popular of NBA’s competitors, the NFL. The average NFL referee will “only” make around $205k per year compared to the $375k average yearly earnings of an NBA referee.
This might seem low, but you need to remember that an NFL season has 16 regular-season games, much fewer than the 82 games in a full NBA regular season.
NFL refs who get selected to the Superbowl get a huge bonus. The figures change from year-to-year, but most available data points to a bonus of $30k to $50k for a single game of football. Not a bad chunk of change for a couple of hours of work.
When it comes to the MLB, an average umpire makes around $235k per year. If you consider that the MLB regular season has 162 games, that figure doesn’t seem amazing.
The playoff salaries are pretty comparable to the NBA, however, with the World Series umpires banking a reported $20k.
The NHL refs have the second-lowest average salary out of the four major US sports leagues at an estimated $212k. The NHL data is quite scarce, but most of it points to an additional $18k for the refs who get assigned to the playoffs.
Overall, it can comfortably be said that the NBA referees enjoy the highest salaries out of the four major leagues. The requirements to become an NBA ref aren’t simple and you need to maintain excellent physical conditioning year-round because, unlike the players, you don’t get to sit on the bench.
It’s the kind of job that is perpetually under-appreciated and the only time it gets talked about is when they do something wrong. It doesn’t get said often, but pro athletes and sports fans everywhere should be thankful for the refs because the leagues we so enjoy would be impossible without them.