By DOUG FEINBERG, AP Basketball Writer
The NCAA received praise last year when it agreed to pay referees fairly for its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments. The gesture costs only about $100,000, a tiny fraction of the roughly $900 million the networks pay each year to air March Madness.
Now, as the NCAA examines various disparities between men’s and women’s sports, pressure is mounting to also pay referees equally during the regular season. Two Division 1 conferences have told The Associated Press they plan to equalize wages, and another is considering it. Others resist change, even if the impact on their budget would be negligible.
“Those who (equal pay) read the writing on the wall,” said Michael Lewis, professor of marketing at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School.
Details of NCAA umpire pay are closely watched, but The Associated Press has obtained data for the 2021-22 season that shows 15 of the NCAA’s largest and most profitable conferences paid veteran umpires for men’s basketball averaging 22% more per game. .
This level of disparity is wider than the gender pay gap in the US economy, where women earn 82 cents for every dollar earned by a man, according to the 2020 census. And it’s a crushing disadvantage for women, who represent less than 1% of referees officiating in men’s matches.
Dawn Staley, the head coach of the University of South Carolina Gamecocks – the women’s national champions – said umpires on the men’s side should “step up” and advocate for equal pay for female umpires. “They don’t do anything different,” she said. “Why should our officials be paid less for taking the (expletive) we give them?”
The people who provided AP with data for nearly half of the NCAA’s 32 Division I conferences have first-hand knowledge of salary ranges, and they did so on condition of anonymity because the information is considered private. .
The Northeastern Conference had the largest pay-per-game disparity among the NCAA leagues analyzed by AP, with the most experienced umpires for men’s games earning 48% more. The Atlantic-10 paid veteran male umpires 44% more, while the Colonial Athletic Association paid them 38% more. (Only the Ivy League paid veteran officials equally in data reviewed by AP.)
Of the conferences with unequal salaries contacted by AP, two — the Pac-12 and the Northeastern Conference — said they plan to level the playing field starting next season. A third, the Patriot League, which had a 33% pay gap last year, said it was looking at fairness for officials across sports. “Compensation is part of it,” Commissioner Jennifer Heppel said.
The Pac-12 paid referees the same a decade ago, but allowed a disparity to widen over time, according to associate commissioner Teresa Gould. She said returning to equal pay was “the right thing to do”.
NEC commissioner Noreen Morris said the decision to equalize salaries was easy once she realized basketball was the only sport where it doesn’t pay referees in a manner equal.
Compared to the amounts of money these leagues generate, the cost of closing the wage gap may seem small.
For example, the SEC paid referees for men’s games 10%, or $350, more than those officiating women’s games. Over the course of a season, it would cost the SEC a few hundred thousand dollars to pay them equally — a slice of the $3 billion deal it signed with ESPN to broadcast all of its sports at from 2024.
The most experienced Division 1 referees – for men’s or women’s matches – are paid well. Some earn more than $150,000 in a season, officiating dozens of games in multiple conferences. New umpires earn much less, supplementing income from another job.
All NCAA umpires are independent contractors, no unions represent their interests, and all must cover their own travel expenses.
The busiest referees might work five or six games a week in different cities, run around the field for 40 minutes one night, sleep for a few hours, then wake up at 4 a.m. to catch a flight to their next destination.
Dee Kantner, a veteran women’s games umpire who works for multiple conferences, finds it frustrating having to justify equal pay.
“If I buy a plane ticket and tell them I’m doing a women’s basketball game, they won’t charge me less,” she said.
“Do you give less importance to women’s basketball?” Kantner said. “How do we rationalize this again?”
Several conference commissioners have stated that men’s and women’s games do not generate equal revenue and the level of play is not equal, and therefore umpire salaries are set accordingly.
“Historically, we’ve treated each group of referees as a separate market,” said Big East commissioner Val Ackerman. “We paid rates that allow us to be competitive for services at our level. I think the leagues are entitled to look at different factors here. I don’t see it as an equity issue – I see it as a market issue.
The Big East pays 22% more to umpires who work on its men’s games, and Ackerman said there are no imminent plans to make a change.
Atlantic-10 commissioner Bernadette McGlade said the market-based approach is what allows it to offer some of the highest per-game rates in the NCAA. “We have the most experienced and qualified officials in the country,” she said.
Veteran umpires officiating 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 AP. Seven other conferences had higher per-game rates — and narrower gender gaps — last year, the data shows.
Of the approximately 800 referees who officiated in women’s basketball last season, 43% were women, a proportion that has remained relatively constant over the past decade. But only six women refereed men’s games last year – a number that has slowly increased in recent years.
NCAA officials supervisor Penny Davis said conferences are trying to recruit more women to officiate men’s games, which is another way to help close the gender pay gap.
But Davis says she would hate to see even fewer women refereeing women’s basketball. “We don’t want to lose our best and our brightest,” she said.
Ten years ago, umpires working for men’s and women’s NCAA tournaments were paid equally. But as the profitability of the men’s tournament skyrocketed, so did its budget, and so did the payment of referees.
Both McGlade and Ackerman praised the NCAA for restoring equal pay to the March tournaments. “We recognize what the NCAA has done for the tournament,” Ackerman said. “NCAA Tournament games are closer but not entirely a common officiating experience.”
Ivy League executive director Robin Harris disagrees. “We decided some time ago that it was the right thing to do to pay them the same amount. They do the same job. »
AP College Football Writer Ralph D. Russo contributed to this story.
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