The NCAA earned praise last year when it agreed to pay referees at its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments equally. The gesture only cost about $100,000, a tiny fraction of the roughly $900 million networks pay annually to broadcast March Madness.
Now, as the NCAA examines various disparities across men's and women's sports, pressure is rising to also pay referees equally 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 change, even though the impact on their budgets would be negligible.
“The ones that are (equalizing pay) are reading the writing on the wall,” said Michael Lewis, a marketing professor at Emory University's Goizueta Business School.
The details of NCAA referee pay are closely guarded, but The Associated Press obtained data for the 2021-22 season that show 15 of the NCAA’s largest — and most profitable — conferences paid veteran referees for men’s basketball an average of 22% more per game.
That level of disparity is wider than the gender pay gap across the U.S. economy, where women earn 82 cents for every dollar a man earns, according to the 2020 census. And it is an overwhelming disadvantage for women, who make up less than 1% of the referees officiating men’s games.
Dawn Staley, the head coach for the University of South Carolina Gamecocks — the women’s national champions — said referees on the men's side should be “stepping up” and advocating for equal pay for women's referees. “They don't do anything different," she said. “Why should our officials get paid less for taking the (expletive) we give them?"
The people who provided AP with data for nearly half of the NCAA’s 32 Division I conferences have direct knowledge of pay scales, and they did so on condition of anonymity because the information is considered private.
The Northeast Conference had the widest per-game pay disparity among the NCAA leagues AP analyzed, with the most experienced referees for men's games earning 48% more. The Atlantic-10 paid veteran men's refs 44% more, while the Colonial Athletic Association paid them 38% more. (Only the Ivy League paid veteran officials equally in the data AP reviewed.)
Of the conferences with unequal pay contacted by AP, two — the Pac-12 and the Northeast Conference — said they plan to level the playing field starting next season. A third, the Patriot League, which had a 33% pay gap last year, said it is reviewing equity for officials in all sports. “Pay is part of that,” commissioner Jennifer Heppel said.
The Pac-12 paid referees equally a decade ago, but allowed a disparity to build over time, according to associate commissioner Teresa Gould. She said returning to equal pay is “the right thing to do.”
NEC commissioner Noreen Morris said the decision to equalize pay was an easy one to make once it realized that basketball was the only sport where it was not compensating referees equally.
Relative to the amounts of money these leagues generate, the cost of bridging the pay gap can seem small.
For example, the SEC paid referees for men’s games 10%, or $350, more than those officiating women’s games. Over the course of a season, it would cost the SEC a couple hundred thousand dollars to pay them equally -- a sliver of the $3 billion deal it signed with ESPN to broadcast all of its sports starting in 2024.
The most experienced Division I referees — for men's or women's games — are well paid. Some earn more than $150,000 in a season, officiating dozens of games across multiple conferences. Newer referees earn far less, supplementing income from another job.
All NCAA referees are independent contractors, with no union representing their interests, and all have to cover their own travel expenses.
The busiest referees can work five or six games a week in different cities, running up and down the court for 40 minutes one night, getting a few hours of sleep, and then waking up at 4 a.m. to catch a flight to their next destination.
Dee Kantner, a veteran referee of women’s games who works for multiple conferences, finds it frustrating to have to justify equal pay.
“If I buy an airline ticket and tell them I’m doing a women’s basketball game they aren’t going to charge me less,” she said.
“Do you value women’s basketball that much less?” Kantner said. “How are we rationalizing this still?”
Several conference commissioners said the men’s and women’s games do not generate equal amounts of revenue, and that the level of play is not equal, and so referee salaries are set accordingly.
“Historically we have treated each referee pool as a separate market,” said Big East Commissioner Val Ackerman. “We paid rates that allow us to be competitive for services at our level. I think the leagues are entitled to look at different factors here. I don’t see it as an equity issue — I see it as a market issue.”
The Big East pays referees working its men's games 22% more, and Ackerman said there is no imminent plan to make a change.
Atlantic-10 Commissioner Bernadette McGlade said the market-based approach is what enables her to offer some of the highest per-game rates across the NCAA. “We get the most experienced, most qualified officials in the country,” she said.
Veteran referees officiating in the Atlantic-10 are paid $3,300 for men’s games, compared with $2,300 for women’s games, according to data reviewed by AP. Seven other conferences had higher per-game rates — and narrower gender gaps — last year, the data show.
Of the roughly 800 referees officiating women's basketball this past season, 43% were female, a proportion that’s been relatively consistent over the past decade. But just six women officiated men’s games last year — a number that has slowly grown over the last few years.
Penny Davis, the NCAA’s supervisor of officials, said conferences are trying to recruit more women to officiate men's games, which is another way to help bridge the gender pay gap.
But Davis says she would hate to see even fewer women refereeing women's basketball. “We don't want to lose our best and brightest,” she said.
A decade ago, referees working the men’s and women’s NCAA Tournament were paid equally. But as the profitability of the men’s tournament skyrocketed, it’s budget grew too -- and so did pay for referees.
Both McGlade and Ackerman praised the NCAA for restoring equal pay at the March tournaments. “We’re mindful of the what the NCAA did for the tournament,” Ackerman said. “NCAA Tournament games are closer but not entirely a common 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 are doing the same job.”
AP College Football Writer Ralph D. Russo contributed to this story.