The National Basketball Association won praise last year when it agreed to pay referees in both men’s and women’s basketball tournaments equally. The gesture only cost about $100,000, a fraction of the roughly $900 million networks pay annually to broadcast March Madness.
Now, as the NCAA studies the different differences between men’s and women’s sports, pressure is also growing to pay referees evenly during the regular season. Two Division I conferences told the Associated Press that they plan to achieve pay equity, and another is considering it. Others resist change, even though the impact on their budgets will be minimal.
“People who[pay parity]read the writing on the wall,” said Michael Lewis, professor of marketing at Emory University’s Joizweta School of Business.
NCAA referee salary details are closely guarded, but the Associated Press obtained data for the 2021-22 season showing that 15 of the NCAA’s largest — and most profitable — conferences paid veteran referees for men’s basketball an average of 22% more per game.
This level of disparity is wider than the gender pay gap across the US economy, with women earning 82 cents for every dollar a man earns, according to the 2020 census. It is a major disadvantage for women, who make up less than 1% of the referees who officiate men’s matches.
Dawn Staley, the head coach for the Jamicocks at the University of South Carolina, said referees on the men’s team should “step up” and advocate for equal pay among women’s referees. “They don’t do anything different,” she said. “Why do our employees get paid less for taking the (expletive) we give them?”
People who provided AP with data for nearly half of the 32 NCAA Division I conferences had first-hand knowledge of pay scales, and they did so on the condition of anonymity because the information is considered private.
The Northeast Conference had the largest pay-per-game disparity among the NCAA leagues analyzed by the AP, with the most experienced referees in men’s games receiving 48% more. The Atlantic-10 paid men’s veteran reviewers 44% more, while the Colonial Athletic Association paid them 38% more. (Only the Ivy League paid veteran officials equally in the data reviewed by the AP.)
Of the underpaid conferences contacted by the AP, two — the Pac-12 and the Northeast Conference — said they plan to level the playing field starting next season. And the third, the Patriots Union, which had a 33 percent pay gap last year, said it was conducting a property rights review of officials in all sports. “Wages are part of that,” Commissioner Jennifer Hebel said.
Pac-12 made equal pay for governors a decade ago, but allowed for variances over time, according to co-commissioner Theresa Gold. She said returning to equal pay was “the right thing to do”.
NEC Commissioner Noreen Morris said the equal pay decision was an easy one once she realized that basketball is the only sport where referees are not equally compensated.
For the amounts of money these leagues generate, the cost of closing the pay gap can seem small.
For example, the SEC paid umpires for men’s games 10%, or $350, more than those who ran women’s games. Over the course of the season, it will cost the SEC hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay evenly — a small part of the $3 billion deal it signed with ESPN to broadcast all of its sports starting in 2024.
The most experienced Division 1 referees – for men’s or women’s games – get paid well. Some earn more than $150,000 per season, and run dozens of games across multiple conferences. New rulers earn much less, supplementing income from another job.
All NCAA governors are independent contractors, no union represents their interests, and they all have to cover their own travel expenses.
The busiest referees can run five or six matches a week in different cities, run back and forth on the field for 40 minutes one night, get a few hours of sleep, and then wake up at 4 a.m. to catch a flight to their next destination.
De Kantner, a veteran women’s games referee who works on multiple conventions, finds it frustrating to have to justify equal pay.
“If I buy an airline ticket and tell them I’m playing a women’s basketball game, they won’t tell me the price,” she said.
Do you value women’s basketball much less? Kantner said. “How do we rationalize this so far?”
Several conference delegates said that men’s and women’s games do not generate equal revenue, that the level of play is unequal, and therefore judges’ salaries are set accordingly.
“Historically we’ve treated each group of governors as a separate market,” Big East Commissioner Val Ackerman said. “We have paid prices that allow us to compete for services at our level. I think the leagues have a right to consider different factors here. I don’t see it as a stock issue – I see it as a market issue.”
Big East pays referees who work at men’s games 22%, and Ackerman said there is no imminent plan to make a change.
Atlantic-10 Commissioner Bernadette McGlade said its market-based approach is what enables it to offer some of the highest prices per game across the NCAA. “We have the most experienced and competent officials in the country,” she said.
Veteran referees working for Atlantic-10 are paid $3,300 for men’s games, compared to $2,300 for women’s games, according to data reviewed by the Associated Press. The data showed that seven other conferences scored higher per game rates – and narrower gender gaps – last year.
Of the nearly 800 referees who administered women’s basketball last season, 43% were female, a proportion that has been relatively consistent over the past decade. But only six women ran the men’s games last year – a number that has grown slowly over the past few years.
Benny Davis, a supervisor for NCAA officials, said the conferences are trying to recruit more women to run men’s games, which is another way to help close the gender pay gap.
But Davis says she hated seeing fewer women rule women’s basketball. “We don’t want to lose our best and brightest,” she said.
A decade ago, the serving referees for the NCAA Men’s and Women’s Championships were paid equally. But as the men’s tournament has grown more profitable, so has its budget – and so has the judges’ pay-off.
McGlade and Ackerman praised the NCAA for restoring equal pay at the March tournaments. “We understand what the NCAA did in the tournament,” Ackermann said. “The NCAA Tournament Games are closer but not quite a co-judgment experience.”
Robin Harris, CEO of the Ivy League, disagrees. “We decided a while ago that it was right to pay them the same amount. They do the same work.”
– Associated Press. AP College football writer Ralph D. Russo contributed to this story.