Umpires and referees ensure that competitors in athletic events follow the rules. They make binding decisions and have the power to impose penalties upon individuals or teams that break the rules. Umpires, referees, and other sports officials hold about 12,800 jobs in the United States.
History of Umpire and Referee Career
The history of sport goes back to the time of the ancient Olympic games, ritualistic ball games of Central and South America, and gladiator battles of Rome. Since gladiator battles were fights to the death, there were no rules to be observed and no need for umpires or referees to ensure fairness.
As athletics became more organized, if not less violent, rules were established, and umpires and referees were needed to enforce these rules and regulations. Boxing, soccer, and rugby were the first sports to have trained officials. With the advent of professional sports such as baseball and basketball, officiating became a career option.
The Job of Umpires and Referees
Every sport has its own set of rules and regulations. Even the same game played on different levels may have its own distinct rules. For example, in professional basketball, the team in possession of the ball has 24 seconds to take a shot on goal. On the college level the shot clock is set at 35 seconds for men’s competition and 30 seconds for women’s competition, and in the game played by most high school teams, there is no shot clock at all.
Sports officials are the experts on the playing field. They know all the rules for the sport they officiate. They observe players while the ball or puck is in play and penalize those who break the rules. They are the decision makers and the arbiters of disputes between the competing teams.
When an official spots an infraction of the rules, he or she blows a whistle to stop play. The penalty is communicated to the official scorer, the penalty is assessed, and play continues.
Major League Baseball utilizes four umpires for each game. The home plate umpire works behind home plate and is responsible for determining whether each pitched ball is thrown within the strike zone. The home plate umpire also rules whether runners crossing home plate are safe or out and keeps track of the ball/strike count on each batter.
Other umpires are responsible for the three bases. They decide whether runners are safe or out at their respective bases. First- and third-base umpires also must observe whether a ball, batted to the outfield, lands on the playing field within the foul line.
It is not uncommon for a single official to work a Little League game. When this is the case, the umpire stands behind the plate. The umpire is responsible for calling balls and strikes, keeping track of the number of outs and the ball/strike count, watching the foul line, and ruling on runners at the bases.
Three officials work National Basketball Association games. They are more active than baseball umpires. Basketball referees run up and down the court, following both the ball and the players. They must not only watch the ball, but must keep an eye out for illegal contact between players.
If three officials are supervising the game, one stands near the basket of the offensive team, another stands at the free throw line extended, and the third stands on the opposite side of the court (from the second official) halfway between mid-court and the free throw line. Each official watches different parts of the court for infractions. For instance, the official near the basket makes sure that no offensive player stands inside the free throw lane for more than three seconds.
High school and college games have two or three officials. Grade school and amateur league games generally have two. Again, the rules may be slightly different, and the athletic ability may vary, but the game is still basketball.
Football games use between four and seven officials. Like other referees, football officials each have specific areas to observe. The referee, who is ultimately in charge, is positioned behind the offensive team. Football referees are responsible for watching the offensive backfield for illegal movement before the ball is put into play, and they also communicate all penalties to the coaches and official scorer.
Another official observes the line of scrimmage for offsides penalties and marks the progress of the ball. The football umpire stands on the defensive team’s side, five yards off the line of scrimmage, and watches for illegal blocks in the line. Other officials stand in the defensive backfield and observe defenders and receivers for illegal contact or interference.
Hockey games have three officials who skate up and down the ice. The hockey referee, who is in charge, stands between the other hockey umpires and assesses penalties. The umpires call offsides and icing violations. Off the ice, the penalty time keeper keeps track of penalty time served, and two goal judges determine whether shots on goal have eluded the goalie and entered the net.
Umpire and Referee Career Requirements
If you are interested in becoming a sports official, you should begin learning as much as you can about sports and their rules. You will also want to get in the physical shape necessary to keep up with the athletes during an event. The best way to accomplish these goals is to participate in school sports.
In class, you will want to focus on English grammar and also other languages if you are interested in working as a baseball umpire or hockey official. Speech, debate, or theater courses will build your self-confidence and teach you the diction skills you need to be understood clearly.
Finally, sports bring together many kinds of people, and as an umpire or referee you must be diplomatic with all of them. Classes in sociology, history, and psychology can help you learn about the different cultures and ways of thinking of people from all parts of the world.
While umpires and referees are not required to attend four-year colleges or universities, many do have college degrees. Often sports officials are former college athletes who decided to pursue a career in sports in a nonperformance capacity. Obviously, attending college and participating in college athletics is an excellent way to reinforce your knowledge of a sport and its rules while receiving a solid education.
The International Association of Approved Basketball Officials has four schools that run each summer in different places in the United States. There, referees learn rules and work games at the players’ camps that are held in conjunction with the schools. Officials for the National Football League must meet the requirements that enable them to become accredited association of football officials.
In almost all cases, officials must attend special training schools or courses. These can vary from the two schools (the Jim Evans Academy of Professional Umpiring and the Harry Wendelstedt School for Umpires) endorsed by Major League Baseball’s Umpire Development Program all the way to the training courses offered to officials in amateur softball. These schools and training courses can be contacted through professional and amateur leagues, college athletic conferences, and state interscholastic commissions. These organizations can also inform you of minimum age requirements (usually 18 and out of high school) and other criteria that vary between leagues and sports.
Certification or Licensing
The special training programs that umpires and referees attend act as their certification. Without these, they are not eligible to officiate. These courses may vary, ranging from those in the official training schools of professional umpires to courses taken through a state interscholastic athletic commission for middle school volleyball officials.
Different sports have different physical requirements. For example, to be a hockey official, you need be an accomplished skater and should be in excellent health. General physical requirements include good vision, to some extent good hearing, and good physical health.
Sports officials must have good communication skills and the ability to make split-second decisions. Many calls that an official makes will be unpopular, so you will need courage to make the correct call and confidence to stand behind your judgment. An easily intimidated official won’t last long in any league. You need the ability to remain cool under pressure. Often, games are played in front of large crowds, and fans can be vocal in their criticism of players, coaches, and especially sports officials.
You must also have a thorough understanding of the sport you officiate. You need to be informed about changes to the rules. Sports officials keep informed by attending clinics and seminars sponsored by professional associations.
Exploring Umpire and Referee Career
A great way to find out if you enjoy being an umpire or referee is to officiate for a Little League team or at a summer camp. Try to locate a sports official in your area and set up an interview. Also, you should continue to watch and participate in sports to learn more.
There are approximately 12,800 sports officials employed in this field. Sports officials are employed by professional and semiprofessional leagues, sports organizations, youth leagues, and schools at all levels.
A person interested in becoming a referee or umpire should begin officiating Little League or amateur league games on weekends and at night. You may even want to volunteer your time. For a paid position, beginners need to pass a written examination and join the state association of officials for each sport they choose to officiate.
The natural progression for umpires and referees is to begin by officiating young peoples’ games and advance to amateur adults’ contests. Those with talent and determination may move on to college games or professional minor leagues.
Many officials who would like to move to the professional level attend umpire or referee camps. Many of these camps are conducted by actual professional officials. These programs feature a rigorous review of rules and regulations and often include game situations.
The minor leagues in baseball are a testing ground for prospective umpires. On average, umpires spend six to eight years at the minor-league level before they are even considered for a major-league position. Football officials must have 10 years of officiating experience, five years of which must have been at a collegiate varsity or minor professional level, before they can work in the NFL.
Umpire and referee salaries vary greatly, depending on the sport and the level at which it is played. Typically, the closer an official gets to the top of a professional sports league, the higher the wages, but this is not always the case. For example, some college basketball referees might earn more money than a non-lead official in a less popular professional sport.
The U.S. Department of Labor reports median annual earnings of $21,610 for umpires and related workers in 2005. Salaries ranged from less than $14,160 to more than $44,890.
According to the Major League Baseball’s Umpire Development Program, umpire salaries ranged from $1,800 to $2,000 per month in the Rookie League to $2,500 to $3,400 per month in the triple-A league to a starting annual salary of $84,000 (in 2003) for a major-league umpire. Major-league umpires with considerable experience can earn as much as $309,000 a year. Professional basketball officials’ salaries range from $77,000 to about $224,000, depending on the experience of the official.
Officials in the National Football League are considered part-time employees who are paid by the game and do not receive benefits. The league cites 2000 salaries as ranging from $1,500 to $4,000 per game, depending on experience.
In professional sports, umpires and referees are typically given additional money for travel, hotel, and food expenses. These officials also receive extra payment if they are invited to work special events such as the World Series or Stanley Cup Finals. Football officials who work the Super Bowl, for example, are paid approximately $12,000.
Umpires and referees at the college, amateur, and youth levels are paid by the game. College officials earn between $200 and $800 per game, and high school and middle school officials earn considerably less. The Arizona State Interscholastic Athletic Commission, for example, cites officials’ earnings as approximately $19 to $25 per game, depending on the sport.
Professional officials work in front of huge crowds. Their judgments and decisions are scrutinized by the fans in the stadium and by millions of fans watching at home. Professional football officials work one game a week, while baseball umpires may work up to six games a week. Some football stadiums are outdoors, and football officials may have to work through inclement weather. Baseball umpires may work outside also, but they can stop the game because of rain.
Being an official at any level can be stressful. Officials must make split-second, unbiased decisions. Rulings are bound to be unpopular, at least to the team or player that is penalized, and even an eight-year-old Little Leaguer can be quite vocal.
Professional officials travel extensively throughout the season. They may be away from home for weeks at a time. Airplane flights, hotel food, and living out of a suitcase are some of the things that professional sports officials must endure.
At any level and with any sport, the work can be physically demanding. Baseball umpires must crouch behind the catcher to call balls and strikes. Basketball referees must run up and down the court, just as hockey officials must skate the rink. Football officials run the risk of colliding with heavily protected, helmeted players.
However, if a person enjoys travel and can withstand the verbal abuse from players, coaches, and fans, the job can be very rewarding. Actual hours spent officiating are relatively short. The duration of most games is less than three hours.
Many people become officials because they enjoy sports. When an athlete’s playing days are over, becoming an official is one way to maintain an active and important role in the sporting world. Most high school and junior high umpires and referees will tell you that they officiate not for the money, but because they enjoy it.
Umpire and Referee Career Outlook
The growth outlook for the field of sports officiating depends on the sport and the league worked. Umpires and referees are almost always needed at the youth, high school, and amateur levels, and people who are interested in supplementing their incomes this way or simply learning about the field of officiating should find plenty of opportunities for work, especially part-time work.
In professional sports the market is much tighter. Umpires in the major leagues rarely leave the job except to retire. In fact, during a 10-year period, the American League hired only three new umpires. When an opening does occur, an umpire moves up from triple-A baseball, creating an opening for an umpire from double-A, and so on. Professional sports without minor leagues offer even fewer employment opportunities for officials at the professional level. The creation of new leagues and expansion teams does occasionally offer additional job opportunities for professional sports officials.
The outlook for women sports officials has improved in recent years with the creation of women’s professional basketball leagues such as the WNBA, offering many new positions to women officials, as well as coaches, trainers, and professional athletes. Additionally, in 1997, two women, Dee Kantner and Violet Palmer, became the first female referees to officiate NBA basketball games—a first for the all-male U.S. major sports leagues. Perhaps, in the future, more openings for women officials will be created as the other leagues follow suit.
For More Information:
- National Association of Sports Officials (NASO)
- International Association of Approved Basketball Officials
- Harry Wendelstedt School for Umpires
- Jim Evans Academy of Professional Umpiring
- Major League Baseball Umpire Camps
- John Skilton’s Baseball Links
- Major League Baseball: Umpires