College basketball leagues struggle with unequal pay for female referees

The NCAA won praise last year when it agreed to pay men’s and women’s basketball referees equally. The gesture only cost about $100,000, a fraction of the roughly $900 million the networks pay annually to air March Madness.

Now, as the NCAA examines various disparities in men’s and women’s sports, the push for equal pay for referees is mounting during the regular season. Two Division I conferences told The Associated Press they plan to match pay, and another is considering it. Others resist change, even if the impact on their budget is minimal.

“Pay equalization people are reading the writing on the wall,” says Michael Lewis, professor of marketing at Emory University’s Goizueta School of Business.

Details of NCAA referee pay are closely guarded, but The Associated Press has obtained data for the 2021-22 season that shows 15 of the NCAA’s largest — and most lucrative — conferences paid veteran men’s basketball referees on average. Pay 22% more per game.

This level of inequality is greater than the gender wage gap in the U.S. economy, where women earn 82 cents for every dollar a man earns, according to the 2020 Census. And that’s a big disadvantage for women, who make up less than 1 percent of male referees.

Dawn Staley, head coach of the University of South Carolina Gamecocks – the women’s national champion – said referees on the men’s side need to “step up” and advocate for equal pay for female referees. “They don’t do anything different,” he said. Why should our officials get paid less for taking us (expletive)?

The people who provided data for nearly half of the NCAA’s 32 Division I conferences to the AP had direct knowledge of the salary scales and did so on condition of anonymity because the information was considered private.

The Northeast Conference had the largest pay-per-game disparity among the NCAA AP leagues, with the most experienced male referees earning 48 percent more. The Atlantic-10 paid veteran referees 44 percent more, while the Colonial Athletic Association paid them 38 percent more. (Only the Ivy League paid veteran officials equally in the AP data reviewed.)

Of the conferences with unequal pay contacted by the AP, two — the Pac-12 and the Northeast Conference — said they plan to level the playing field starting next season. Third, the Patriot League, which had a 33 percent pay gap last year, said it will review fairness for officials in all sports. “Payment is part of it,” said Commissioner Jennifer Heppel.

The Pac-12 paid referees equally a decade ago, but has allowed disparities to develop over time, according to Assistant Commissioner Theresa Gould. Returning to equal pay is “the right thing to do,” he said.

NEC Commissioner Noreen Morris said the decision to equalize pay was easy when she realized basketball was the only sport in which referees were not compensated equally.

Compared to the amount of money these leagues generate, the cost of closing the salary gap can seem small.

For example, the SEC pays men’s umpires 10 percent, or $350, more than women’s umpires. Over the course of a season, paying them the same amount would cost the SEC several hundred thousand dollars — part of the $3 billion deal it signed with ESPN to broadcast all of its sports starting in 2024.

The most experienced referees in the first division – for men’s or women’s games – are well paid. Some make more than $150,000 a season and referee dozens of games in multiple conferences. Newer referees earn much less and earn from other jobs.

All NCAA referees are independent contractors, no union represents their interests, and all must pay their own travel expenses.

The busiest referees can work five or six games a week in different cities, run up and down the pitch for 40 minutes a night, sleep for a few hours and then wake up at 4am to fly to their next destination.

Dee Kantner, a veteran women’s referee who works for several conferences, finds the justification for equal pay disappointing.

“If I buy a plane ticket and tell them I’m going to a women’s basketball game, they’re not going to charge me less,” he said.

Are you undervalued for women’s basketball? Kantner said. “How do we still rationalize this?”

Several members of the conference said that the men’s and women’s games do not generate equal income and the level of play is not equal, and therefore the salaries of referees are determined accordingly.

“Historically, we’ve treated each arbitration group as a separate market,” said Val Ackerman, Eastern Commissioner. We charge rates that allow us to be competitive for our level of service. I think the leagues are right to look at different factors here. I don’t see it as a stock issue – I see it as a market issue.

The Big East pays umpires who work its men’s games 22 percent more, and Ackerman said there are no imminent plans to make a change.

Atlantic-10 Commissioner Bernadette McGlade said the market-based approach is what enables her to offer some of the highest per-game rates across the NCAA. “We have the most experienced and qualified officials in the country,” he said.

Veteran referees who officiate in the Atlantic-10 are paid $3,300 for men’s games, compared to $2,300 for women’s games, according to data reviewed by the AP. Seven other conferences had higher per-game rates and smaller gender gaps last year, the data show.

Of the roughly 800 referees who officiated women’s basketball last season, 43 percent were women, a ratio that has been fairly consistent over the past decade. But last year only six women refereed the men’s games – a number that has slowly increased over the past few years.

Penny Davis, the NCAA’s supervisor of officials, said conferences are trying to hire more women to referee men’s games, another way to help close the gender pay gap.

But Davis says she would hate to see fewer women refereeing women’s basketball. “We don’t want to lose our best and brightest,” he said.

A decade ago, referees officiating men’s and women’s NCAA tournaments were paid equally. But as the men’s competition grew more profitable, so did its budget – and so did the cost to referees.

McGlade and Ackerman both praised the NCAA for restoring equal pay in March. “We’re mindful of what the NCAA did for the tournament,” Ackerman said. “NCAA tournament games are closer but not quite a common officiating experience.”

Ivy League Executive Director Robin Harris disagrees. Some time ago we decided that paying them the same amount was the right thing to do. They do the same thing.”

Ralph D. AP College Football Writer Russo contributed to this story.

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