Alternative Moneymaking No. 1: Football Referee

This is article No. 1 of my Alternative Moneymaking Series. Alternative Moneymaking is a way of making money, alternatively. Which means most moneymaking ventures outside of the traditional moving to New York or San Francisco and working in a corporation. And it most definitely means your income doesn’t derive from being a lawyer, banker, or consultant.

A football official

Friday night lights. High school football. It’s third down and one. The offense runs it up the gut. The running back hits a wall of oversized teenage linesmen. In a scrum they push forward. The running back falls to the ground. It’s close. Did he get the first down? The white hat signals to the clock operator up in the booth to stop the clock. The referees confer. Too close to call. They call over the chain crew…

How many Moneymakers are in the passage above?

Answer: 10

There are 10 Moneymakers. Let’s look at them:

  1. Referee 1 - Referee (aka White Hat)
  2. Referee 2 - Umpire
  3. Referee 3 - Linesman
  4. Referee 4 - Line judge
  5. Referee 5 - Side judge
  6. Referee 6 - Back judge
  7. Electric Clock Operator (a licensed football official)
  8. Chain crew member 1 (on the box, i.e., the down marker)
  9. Chain crew member 2 (on a stick)
  10. Chain crew member 3 (on a stick)

I’m training to become a High School Football Referee. Beginner officials start off doing chains (i.e., measuring down and distance), and reffing American Youth Football (AYF) or Pop Warner games and Freshman or JV games. Sooner or later, you move up the ladder until you’re part of a crew rocking Varsity.

I’ve worked several Varsity chains and earned $60 a pop. I’ll take it. The on-field officials and the Electric Clock Operator (the individual responsible for managing the game clock up in the booth) earn $85 a game. They’ll take it. Games last about 2.5 hours, give or take. And you can budget, say, 30 minutes to 1.5 hours for total transportation time, give or take. Thus, total “work” time is about 4 hours. That’s $15/hr for the Chainers and $21.25/hr for the Officials.

Here’s a breakdown of pay by work assignment and game type:

Football referee pay schedule

*Note: AYF/Pop Warner and Freshman/JV games have smaller crews—only 3 refs or so. Hence, the n/a’s. There are Chainers at these games, but they aren’t paid in my Association. It’s possible they are elsewhere.

To summarize, pay ultimately depends on:

a) the type of game (AYF/Pop, Freshman, JV, Varsity) b) work assignment (chains, reffing, clock management) c) the schools themselves d) your local Football Officials Association.

Sure you’re not buying a yacht becoming a High School Football Referee, but that’s not the objective here. It’s matter-of-factly an Alternative Moneymaker. One which gives you an excuse to participate in a very American cultural event, enjoy the outdoors, embed yourself deeper in the community, and meet people.

At the same time, if you want to get hardcore, you could very well earn a living by way of officiating. The trick is to license up in other sports in addition to football: field hockey, soccer, basketball, volleyball, lacrosse, and on. With the right dose of hobnobbing (make friends with the Athletic Directors and Game Assigners) and OCD (Organization, Curiosity, and Disposition to Do), you can receive a steady flow of game assignments. Throw in summer camps and outside-of-school leagues and you’ve now composed a schedule where you’re virtually working a game or a few games every day for most of the year. You’d be earning a living as a full-time Sports Referee. This has been done.

If you just want to stick with football, however, here’s this to whet your appetite: AYF and Pop Warner games, generally on Sunday, run one after another. A given town will have, anywhere from 2 to 5 TEAMS for the different ages/weight groups. And therefore 2 to 5 GAMES. In my area on-the-field officials and in-the-booth clock operators earn $65 per AYF game. They’re then looking at $130 on a Fine Sunday, upwards to $325—before taxes. (Sadly, Chainers by me don’t earn for AYF games.)

To be sure, these are coveted games and not any schmegegge can work them. Local football officials chapters can be intensely political (this is small town politics at it’s worst—or best?), thus knowing who to befriend is important (hint: the Assigner(s)!); there are hierarchies to navigate, formal hoops to jump through. But any schmegegge, with a little bit of Alternative Moneymaking Prowess, can work these coveted games.

Alright, so if you’re a washed up football player like myself or somebody who simply enjoys the sport and would like to get on the field and earn some side shekels, here’s a Checklist to go about it:

1. Familiarize yourself with your local Football Officials Association’s website.

  • If there’s a newsletter, subscribe.

2. Find a Ref to talk to and ask as many questions as you can drum up.

3. Know who the Association’s “VIRP” (Very Important Referee People) or Gatekeepers are:

  • President and Vice President
  • Assigner(s)
  • Cadet Coordinator (if there is one)
  • Evaluation Coordinator

4. Plot out the steps to become a certified “carded” official

  • Go through the referee in-training program without missing a class.

5. Is the role of Arbiter and the Assigner(s) understood?

6. Email and introduce yourself to the Assigner(s) and anyone else you deem necessary.

7. Pay the requisite association fees.

8. Attend all of your Association’s meetings.

9. Be available for game assignments.

This last check Be available for game assignments is critical. By far, the best way to get games is to be available for games!

A final note: I write this Checklist with high school football officiating (and down) in mind. If your ambition extends to the NCAA FBS or NFL levels—both of which are reachable!—consider this Checklist a stepping stone.

A second final note: There are folks content only doing chains. There are “Communication Liaison Officials” in College and NFL—they let the Referees on the field know when, say, a TV timeout is over, among other things. There are Announcers (non-officials) with AMM creds. The point is, there are nooks and crannies of the Alternative World of Football Refereeing and all in its orbit.

And this World is buzzing with opportunity.

Hurl any questions at [email protected]

*Arbiter greases the Football Officiating wheels. For the referee’s purpose, it’s a web application designed to coordinate game assignments. Your Assigner(s) will use Arbiter to match Referees with games. It’s for this reason Assigners are Gatekeepers: they control which refs work which games. As an AMM aside, in my Association, the Assigner earns a commission for each game he assigns! Check out Arbiter’s website here:


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