The NCAA won praise last year when it agreed to pay referees equally in men’s and women’s basketball tournaments.. The gesture cost only about $100,000, a tiny fraction of the roughly $900 million a year networks pay to broadcast March Madness.
Now, the NCAA is investigating the differences in men’s and women’s sportsPressure is mounting for equal pay for referees during the regular season. Two Division I conferences told The Associated Press they plan to equalize pay, and another is considering it. Others are resisting the change, even though the impact on their budgets is negligible.
“(Salary equivalents) are reading the writing on the wall,” says Michael Lewis, professor of marketing at Emory University’s Gozueta School of Business.
NCAA referee pay details are closely guarded, but The Associated Press found that the 15 NCAA’s largest — and most profitable — conferences paid veteran referees an average of 22% per game for basketball during the 2021-22 season.
According to the 2020 Census, this level of disparity is wider than the gender pay gap in the U.S. economy, where women earn 82 cents for every dollar a man earns. And it’s a huge blow to women, who make up less than 1% of referees who preside over the men’s game.
Dawn Staley, head coach of the South Carolina Gamecocks, said referees on the men’s side need to “step up” and advocate for equal pay for female referees. “They don’t do anything different,” she said. “Why do our officials get paid less for taking what we give them (actually)?”
About half of the NCAA’s 32 Division 1 conferences provided information to the AP with direct knowledge of the pay scale, and did so on condition of anonymity because the information is considered private.
The Northeast Conference had the widest per-game pay disparity among NCAA leagues AP, with experienced referees earning 48% more in men’s games. The Atlantic-10 paid veterans 44% more, while the Colonial Athletic Association paid 38% more. (In data reviewed by the AP, only the Ivy League pays veteran officials the same amount.)
Two of the conferences with unequal pay — the Pac-12 and the Northeast Conference — said they plan to level the playing field starting next season. Third, the Patriots League, which had a 33% salary disparity last year, says it is reviewing officials’ equity in all sports. “Payment is part of that,” said Commissioner Jennifer Heppel.
The Pac-12 paid referees equally a decade ago, but has allowed disparities over time, said Associate Commissioner Teresa Gould. Returning to equal pay is “the right thing to do,” she said.
NEC Commissioner Noreen Morris said the decision to equalize pay is easy after understanding that basketball is the only sport that has the job of compensating referees equally.
Given the amount of money these leagues generate, the cost of bridging the pay gap may seem small.
For example, the SEC paid referees 10%, or $350, more for men’s games than those officiating women’s games. Per season, it costs the SEC a couple of hundred thousand dollars to pay the equivalent — the $3 billion deal it signed with ESPN to broadcast all of its sports starting in 2024.
Most experienced Division 1 referees – for men’s or women’s games – are well paid. Some officiate dozens of games in multiple conferences and earn more than $150,000 a season. New judges earn much less than other jobs.
All NCAA referees are independent contractors, with no union representing their interests, and all must cover their own travel expenses.
Busy referees work five or six games a week in different cities, run around the court for 40 minutes a night, get a few hours of sleep, then wake up at 4 a.m. to catch a flight to their next destination.
De Kantner, a veteran referee for women’s games who works for multiple conferences, said justifying equal pay is frustrating.
“If I buy an airline ticket and tell them I’m working a women’s basketball game, they won’t charge me less,” she said.
“Are you undervaluing women’s basketball?” Kantner said. “How are we still considering this?”
Several conference commissioners have argued that the men’s and women’s games do not provide equal revenue and the level of play is not equal, so referee salaries are set accordingly.
“Historically, we’ve looked at each umpiring pool as a separate market,” Big East Commissioner Val Ackerman said. “We’ve paid a price that allows us to be competitive for services at our level. I think the leagues have a right to look at different situations here. I don’t see it as a fairness issue — I see it as a market issue.”
The Big East pays umpires 22% more for men’s games, and Ackerman said there are no immediate plans to make a change.
Atlantic-10 Commissioner Bernadette McGlade said the market-based approach allows it to offer some of the highest per-game prices in the NCAA. “We will have the most experienced and qualified officials in the country,” she said.
Veteran referees in the Atlantic-10 are paid $3,300 for men’s games and $2,300 for women’s games, according to data reviewed by the AP. Seven other conferences had higher costs per game — and narrower gender gaps — last year, the data show.
This past season, 43% of the nearly 800 referees officiating women’s basketball games were women, a percentage that has been consistent over the past decade. But last year only six women led the men’s games – a number that has steadily grown over the past few years.
Penny Davis, the NCAA’s supervisor of officials, said the conference is trying to recruit more women to officiate men’s games, which is another way to help close the gender pay gap.
But Davis said she hates to see even fewer women refereeing women’s basketball. “We don’t want to lose our best and brightest,” she said.
Ten years ago, referees officiating men’s and women’s NCAA tournaments were paid equally. But as the men’s competition grew more profitable, so did the budget – and so did the pay for judges.
Both McGlade and Ackerman praised the NCAA for restoring equal pay in March tournaments. “We remember what the NCAA did for the tournament,” Ackerman said. “The NCAA Tournament games are close but not quite the same officiating experience.”
Ivy League Executive Director Robin Harris disagrees. “We decided a while ago that it was the right thing to do to pay them the same amount. They’re doing the same job,” he said.
AP College Football Writer Ralph D. Rousseau contributed to this story.
More AP Women’s Basketball: And