Veteran referee Ed Hochuli and his fellow NFL officials have been locked out for three months by the NFL. (James Lang, US Presswire)
by Jim J Corbett, USA TODAY
Now that the lockout is over, and officials have reached a labor deal with the NFL, a nagging question still remains: What is an NFL referee worth?
The 121 NFL Referees Association officials, many of whom have full-time jobs, earned an average of roughly $149,000 last season. Before the lockout, the league offered to boost that to $189,000 per official by 2018.
To the working stiff -- even the lunch-pail fans who love the NFL -- that's a lot of money for a second job that's mostly weekend work. Toss in the pension plan, which has become the sticking point in the negotiations, and most regular employees in the private sector simply can't relate.
But after the replacement officials' debacle, culminating in Monday night's infamous blown call in the Green Bay Packers-Seattle Seahawks game, economists say NFL officials -- specialists in their field -- are worth every penny of their salary and more.
"In terms of whether the refs should be getting paid more than between $80,000 and $140,000 a year, my sense is, yes, they should," said sports economist Andrew Zimbalist, a Smith College professor who has published several books on the professional sports landscape.
"These are extraordinarily skilled people who are doing a job that is very demanding and even a little bit dangerous. The notion that these guys are considered part-time employees rather than people who need to stay in shape year-round and they need to study and learn and be trained about the new rules and regulations and be concerned about illegal hits and player safety, that salary range strikes me as on the low side."
Added Paul Haagen, professor of sports and contract law at Duke University: "The veteran officials are worth what they can get paid (based upon) the value they bring to the product and how much competition there is.
"Is the commissioner worth $12 million a year? On recent performance, it's not clear he is. What is clear is these referees have very significant value, and trying to play the game without them is hurting the game."
But how do you explain the big numbers to working-class people?
"Relatively few Americans work under the scrutiny that these officials work under," Haagen said. "It's a pretty high-pressure environment. When you drop your wrench, it's not on SportsCenter repeatedly that night."
While he argues for officials to get a raise, Zimbalist sympathizes with the owners' push to implement a 401 (k)-type retirement program, which is in line with today's expected benefits.
Kevin Quinn, associate dean and professor of economy at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wis., is in the eye of the NFL storm. The Packers were robbed of a victory Monday night by a mistaken call by replacement officials, and Quinn says that play (and the subsequent outrage) tipped the balance of power in the negotiations, making the officials even more valuable.
"Literally, as soon as that play occurred, it was pretty obvious the NFL had lost this deal," he said.
Zimbalist says the NFL is motivated because, with each bad call by replacements, the price likely goes up.
"Owners are going to have to cut a bargain that's not as good as the bargain they hoped they'd cut," he said.