When Chuck Jaffe isn’t doing a radio show, you’ll find the Bostonian running around a La Crosse field wearing a striped shirt. Jaffe is a referee in his spare time. It’s a perfect side gig, he says. You earn good money and get fit at the same time.
“Fitness is part of the equation,” adds Jon Lansner, a columnist for The Orange County Register in California. “You’ve got to run your butt off if you want to be good at officiating women’s La Crosse.”
On a typical tournament weekend, Lansner says he runs the equivalent of a half-marathon.
“My sister pays to run in half-marathons,” Lansner adds. “I get paid.”
And, while La Crosse is among the more physically demanding sports, few allow you to be sedentary. No matter whether you’re the umpire at a baseball game or a referee for football, basketball or soccer, you’re going to spend the entire game on your feet — often at a sprint.
Many referees say they got into officiating because of their love of the game — or of their children, who happened to be playing it. But a nice side benefit of this side hustle is that it also pays well. How much depends on the level of play and the sports association that assigns the work, but pay typically ranges from $50 to $100 per game in youth sports. The higher the level, the better the pay.
For instance, Lansner says he works for as little as $45 a game, when he’s officiating middle-school games. Jaffee earns between $75 and $100 reffing high school varsity. Jeff McDonald, a San Jose facilities executive, officiates high school football games for $50 – $60 a game. Games typically last from one-to-two hours, providing hourly pay ranging from $25 to $50.
“I earn $1,500 to $3,000 a year,” says McDonald, who primarily officiates on Friday nights. “But if you really wanted to hustle, you could make $20,000 to $30,000.”
Since you’re paid by the game, it’s easy to earn considerably more when you’re willing to take back-to-back assignments. Some referees note that they’re often asked to officiate several games in a single evening — both JV and Varsity games, for instance. And tournament weekends can be a cash cow.
“I have done tournaments that pay $50 to $60 per game, and you do 8 games a day,” says Lansner.
It’s not unusual to take home $500 over the course of a tournament weekend, the refs agree.
Importantly, too, demand for good referees appears to be high all over the country. Many youth sports associations actively recruit because they can’t get enough officials.
Why is there a shortage of applicants for well-paid work? Rude parents. You’ve got to be confident and thick-skinned to be a sports official because parents frequently boo, badger and swear at you when you make a call that they don’t like. “Part of this is combat pay,” says Lansner.
There’s also some homework involved. Most sports associations will require referees to attend occassional training sessions and keep up-to-date on an ever-changing rule book. Getting to know the people to give out the referee assignments is also important, Lansner says. “There’s some politicing.”
That said, there are hundreds of thousands of jobs and since some sport is always in season, an official who is willing to work several sports can work year-round. “I’ve known people who have turned this into almost a full-time job,” he adds.
Indeed, if you’re good at it, this is also a side hustle that can turn into a lucrative career. Officials in professional sports typically earn six-figure salaries.
Where to start
If you’ve never officiated a game before, you’re probably best starting with young kid’s games. You can start by simply contacting local youth sports groups for the sport you’re interested in.
You can also find tips and contacts at “Say Yes to Officating,” a national group dedicated to bringing more officials to youth sports. The site provides information on seven sports — baseball, softball, basketball, football, soccer, la crosse, and volleyball — including pay ranges and national organizations representing that sport.
It’s worth mentioning that while it’s helpful to be a fan of the sport you officiate, you don’t necessarily need experience playing the game.
“You don’t need to be a racecar driver to enforce the rules of the road,” says Jaffe.
Another option for athletes
If you’re a great athlete who knows the fine points of a particular sport, but don’t have the thick skin required to be an official, you can also potentially side hustle as a coach. Sites such as CoachUp and neighborhood referral sites like Nextdoor can help you advertise your services to prospective clients.
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