Breaking down the divide in the NFL-NFLRA dispute

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The one thing we can saying with certainty about the NFL and the locked-out officials is that they’re not saying anything to each other.  Until they do, they won’t be able to bridge the gap on financial and other issues.

So if they were to sit down and try, what would the gap be?

The driving factor is, as always, money.  The league contends that it has offered annual raises between five and 11 percent, pointing out that the average pay for NFL officials last season was $149,000.  (Not bad for a hobby.)  Under the NFL’s most recent (and perhaps final) proposal, the average official would earn $189,000 by 2018.

First-year officials earned, on average, $78,000 in 2011.  Under the NFL’s most recent (and perhaps final) proposal, the average first-year official from 2011 would be making $165,000 by 2018.

The officials, obviously, want more.  (Otherwise, they’d have a deal.)  The characterization of the gap depends on the perspective of the party characterizing it.  The NFLRA says it amounts to $100,000 per team per year.  Factoring in the preseason, that’s $5,000 per team per game.  The league sees the difference more broadly, as a canyon that amounts t $22.7 million over seven years.  (Of course, over those same seven years the league will likely have generated more than $70 billion in total revenues.)

With 119 total officials, it all works out to an average divide of $27,250 per official per year.

Another major dispute flows from retirement benefits.  Like many employers, the NFL wants to convert its defined benefit plan to a 401(k) defined contribution plan, shifting the risks of the market to the individual employees.  Given that, for most if not all officials, working games is a well-paying hobby, being treated in their hobbies like the vast majority of American workers shouldn’t be a big deal.

The NFL also wants to add 21 more officials (three total crews), in order to provide the league with a “bench” that could be used during the season to replace officials who are struggling.  While the league apparently would be paying all officials out of the same pot, if the average increases cited by the league take into account the expanded roster of officials, it should be a non-issue.  (It’s likely an issue because the locked-out officials don’t want to have in-season accountability.)

The issue of full-time officials could be controversial not for what it means now but for what it could mean in the future.  If the NFL plans to eventually convert their officials to full-time employees (as the NFL should), the total package of compensation likely will be less than the total money earned by many officials in their “real” jobs and at their hobbies.  The locked-out officials likely prefer to not go down that path at all.

Many would prefer that the league not go down the path of replacement officials, but if the locked-out officials aren’t willing to accept what some would regard as an objectively fair offer, what should the NFL do?  Not play the games?  Or cave in to the demands simply because the NFL can “afford” to pay the locked-out officials what they want?

While it’s reasonable for the officials to look at the success of the game and say “we want more,” the officials need to realize that no one goes to the games to see them, and that they are indeed replaceable.

The problem is that the process of replacing all of them at once with only a few months to prepare puts the league in a delicate spot.  And the locked-out officials know it.

We’re trying hard not to pick sides on this one.  We just want the regular officials to get back on the job, which will happen sooner rather than later only if the two sides start talking.

While it’s easy to insist that the NFL bridge the gap because the NFL has the money to do it, the locked-out officials aren’t exactly hurting, either.  And so, if the replacement officials end up screwing things up, we’ll ultimately blame not only the entity that locked out the regular officials but also the regular officials who forced the lockout by wanting more of a raise than most Americans are currently getting in their primary (and only) jobs.

36 responses to “Breaking down the divide in the NFL-NFLRA dispute

  1. Florio, I agree with you. I can’t wait for the regular officials to get back to the field. Then we can all get back to doing what we do each week. Complaining about all the bad calls they made.

  2. Mike, this is a great summation of the facts made even greater without the imposition of a bias that seemed prevalent in many articles over the last few weeks. I’ve badgered you a couple of times in the past, so I feel compelled to acknowledge the reverse as well. At the risk of sounding like a suck-up, this is an example of your take on the NFL at its finest.

  3. The three extra crews thing is what gets me, more than anything. If my company wants “bench strength” they are more than able and willing to go out and hire Computer Programmers/Managers/Executives to give them that strength. But they shouldn’t be expecting to pay them with the existing budget for salaried employees.

    If you want “bench strength”, you have to pay extra for that. That’s just common sense.

    If “accountability” is the problem, then just turn-over (thats a nice management word for “fire”) the worst performing referees every year.

  4. Wow! $150k/year and they’re not full-time employees? I had no idea they were earning that much. If they’re provided with health insurance and retirement benefits for that, it’s hard to argue in the officials’ favor here. Sure, the NFL generates massive income, but that’s of no relevance.

    Contrast what the officials earn for their part-time job ($150k/year) with what the cheerleaders earn ($50/game). It’s hard to argue that the officials work harder than the cheerleaders.

    Sounds to me like the officials are trying to exert pressure to make an already ridiculously sweet deal even sweeter. And that they’re trying to avoid accountability when they don’t do their jobs well. That’s disappointing…

  5. I disagree with both sides lol.
    Seriously though, $150k for a part time gig plus you get benis? C’mon man!
    Plus they get to hobnob with famous people, see the games from the field, free travel (sometimes even overseas), prob Superbowl tix I’m guessing, prob free meals….
    Sit at home if that’s not good enough for you!

  6. (It’s likely an issue because the locked-out officials don’t want to have in-season accountability.)

    This is pretty much what it all comes down to.

    You can put the money issues on the back burner and look at this one defining issue. The NFLRA doesn’t want their officials to be accountable.

    The NFL wants a system in place that would allow them to replace incompetent officials. This would also allow the NFL to constantly bring in and train new “talent”. The NFLRA wants to keep the status quo while also increasing their part of the money pie.

    I think most fans realize that the replacement officials have issues with the pacing of their calls and their decisiveness at which calls are made. But that the overall product outside of that is not really any different than with the NFLRA officials.

    Through time and experience(that’s what these guys need), the replacements will be just as effective as the NFLRA officials. And if this leads to a system where NFLRA officials are held accountable for poor performance, I am all for it. Even if this means we have to watch the replacements go through growing pains till we get there.

  7. How funny is it that part of the reason the NFL put the replacement officials on the field is because they want the ability to create a reserve pool to replace underperforming officials?

  8. We’re trying hard not to pick sides on this one.
    …any more. Almost every post on this subject (except this one) has derided the NFL and the replacement officials with little mention of blame towards the NFLRA. You took a side and now you are beginning to see a bit more clearly. The knee-jerk reaction of many seems to be the big corporation is being unfair to the little guy (union/associations). That is not the case on this one. The NFLRA is paid very well already and their desire to increase pay/benefits while avoiding accountability is hypocritical and unseemly. Just because the NFL makes a ton of money does not mean every employee involved should be compensated beyond their true value. Walmart makes a ton of money and without cashiers no sales are made. That doesn’t mean every cashier should earn $75K/year

  9. Thanks for the actual break-down instead of the screaming from Sports Radio Guy. I have to think the issue is more about accountability than the money for the Refs, and the NFL is certainly in their right to ask for that accountability.

    Didn’t MLB fire all of their umpires over a labor dispute in the late 90’s. I forget how all that worked out.

  10. The regular refs are not that great, but the replacements are abysmal.

    The refs should be full-time, like MLB. The NFL should mirror that model. The NFL should take this opportunity to start a new system of developing refs and bringing them to NFL refs when they’re ready.

    In the meantime… Bobby Fisher! Where is he – I dunno, I dunno.

  11. (Of course, over those same seven years the league will likely have generated more than $70 billion in total revenues.)


    Excellent article. It’s about time someone delved into the dispute beyond the “replacement officials suck” muckraking.

    The only thing I have an issue with is the league revenue numbers that keep getting thrown out. Because there is no context with it, most times it sounds like they are earning that much PROFIT. While the numbers are still quite mind boggling the owners side of that would be $35 billion less nonplayer expenses. Or for the $9 bill/yr number sited most commonly, $4.5 bill less nonplayer expenses. So while the numbers are still mind boggling, the owners do have quite a bit less profit at their disposal than people assume.

  12. What am I missing with the numbers?
    You said the avg official made $150,000 in 2011, but in the new terms you broke it out to be $27,250 per official per year. So how does that add up to $189,000 under the new deal. I’m sure I’m missing something, but just not sure what.

  13. Whatever … the refs make top 1% money … for their fun part-time job.

    I’m with the league on this one. Bring in replacements and get them up to speed.

  14. Oh wait is the $27,250 the amount the officials want MORE per year than what the NFL is offering them?

    Yeah this is some big money for people that do this on the side. Granted there is a lot of responsibility by the people, as we have seen by the massive failures of the some of the replacements, still some good side money. And Hoch is a lawyer by day right, as I’m sure others are too, (as those are the people that seem to love crazy amounts of rules). So they are already bringing in some good $$.

    Split the difference and lets end this thing. Don’t need 5mins just to spot a ball or figure out the right penalty to charge.

  15. Davo – I see two problems with your comment. First, the NFL is not asking the refs to take a pay cut (as you imply) so they can hire “bench strength.” Second, have you ever tried to just “fire” a union employee? I’m guessing you are a union employee.

  16. This looks like another Union screwing with reality. Unions have their place, well-earned, but they chronically overreach into unrealistic territory like the NFLPA did last year.

    Who works part time and deserves a pension, and the Refs don’t want accountability – are you serious? Get real and accept the truth of the context you’re working in.

  17. I’m with both sides but for once(I’m extremely pro union) I lean towards the league here. I think they should fold on the financial issues to give the refs something since in reality that money is minimal, but hold strong to the accountability and full time requirements. get the money back in the next negotiations, but it’s time the refs put away their other jobs out find a new hobby.

  18. capitala23 says:Aug 30, 2012 11:12 AM

    What am I missing with the numbers?
    You said the avg official made $150,000 in 2011, but in the new terms you broke it out to be $27,250 per official per year. So how does that add up to $189,000 under the new deal. I’m sure I’m missing something, but just not sure what.
    Apples and oranges. The $40K increase is what the league is offering (but that’s only for the final year of the deal, not the average increase). The $27,250 is the difference between the league’s offer and what the refs want.

  19. While people do not go to the games to see the refs, plenty of fans depend on the refs to get the calls right, as calls begin to blow the line people are going to scream bloody murder at the NFL to bring the refs back.

  20. Hell of a part time gig where do I sign up

    $150,000.00 as a parttime job that is more then most fans make in two years with fulltime jobs.

    What is the average age of a ref how many years does the average ref work?

    For that kind of cash they should be fulltime

    These guys have one heck of a hobby

  21. So if the lockout had not occurred, what is the likelihood there would have been a strike? I would like to know, as if the owners made the decision to lock out the refs in a case where otherwise it would have been status quo until a contract was negotiated, then the owners would be totally at fault for anything that happens with the replacements.

  22. The NFLRA should remember the history of the MLB Umps strike over a decade ago. They were locked out, as well, and most of those guys NEVER got their jobs.

    Refs need to remember that, while 0% of the people posting here have the skills/talent to be NFL players, I would guess the plurality of us could be NFL reps if properly trained. If you have above average intelligence and are in good physical condition…it ain’t that hard.

  23. Do I understand this right? The NFL wants full time refs but does not want them to have a pension?
    Makes sense. Corporate America wants to eliminate pensions for everybody. It only follows that we’ve got to eliminate Social Security next. A kinder and gentler world surely will come to be.

  24. I always thought these guys got paid little to no money and they did this as a hobby, but damn 150k a year sure is a damn nice hobby to have!

  25. sdelmonte says:Aug 30, 2012 11:44 AM

    So if the lockout had not occurred, what is the likelihood there would have been a strike? I would like to know, as if the owners made the decision to lock out the refs in a case where otherwise it would have been status quo until a contract was negotiated, then the owners would be totally at fault for anything that happens with the replacements.
    There almost certainly would have been a strike, and that would mean 1) no football at all, or 2) far worse refereeing than we’re seeing. If the refs are not willing to accept the league’s current generous offer, who believes they wouldn’t strike? Even if they wouldn’t have, how could the league be sure? This was the only way to ensure there would be a football season.

  26. I honestly believe the NFLRA isn’t holding out because of the raise offer. I think they want all the accountability, added ref crews, and full time employment removed from the deal before they’re willing to talk.

    I absolutely agree that the refs should be full time. At least the high ranking refs of each crew. However, all the regular refs are a Union, and thus won’t allow anything they don’t like. As Florio (and others) have mentioned many of these refs have 150K+ jobs elsewhere. Which means being converted to full time with the NFL would be a pay cut and they aren’t willing to do it.

    I believe they are at an impasse that can only be surpassed by removing the NFLRA as a whole. Then the lower ranking refs who are willing at accept what the majority of the NFLRA wouldn’t could then apply individually.

    To bring about the changes the NFL wants (and needs) it may take a season or two to completely shake out and implement. This is why I hate workers unions. They are outdated, self-serving, and usually exist to protect poor quality workers from receiving exactly what they’ve earned: a pink slip.

  27. Well it took you a long time to do it, but you finally wrote a fair and balanced piece on this stalemate Mike. It’s not just about the NFL being greedy and wanting to have things their way. It’s about a group of partime employees wanting to be paid and treated like Full Time employees and resisting the idea that maybe it should become a full time job.

    I actually see more greed coming from the NFLRA on this issue. They seem to be saying “but look at how much money you guys are making” instead of negotiating based on what their services offer the league. It’s going to be painful watching the replacements, but at the end of the day if this leads to full time officials, I think it’s worth it. The officiating in this league is so bad at times it’s embarrasing. All you have to do is look at the Giant/Packer Playoff game last year to see how bad the regular officials are and how big of an effect they can have on a game. Full time officials are long overdue.

  28. @lks311 12:00pm comment:

    Disagree on the fact that “plurality of us” could be good NFL refs if properly trained.

    I’m a ref in a different sport (soccer and wrestling), and I’m reffing at or slightly below where the NFL replacement refs are being drawn from (low-level college etc). I know several FIFA/National level refs, and have worked with National level refs on a fairly consistent basis in my career. Working on the assumption that the NFL wants the football equivilent of FIFA/National level refs on their games, most refs can’t get there.

    Their fitness is not high enough, or their ability to keep track of fourteen variables (style of play or teams, personal animosity between players, history, game flow, game feel (is it nasty or a friendly), player preferences on what gets called, where the “foul line” is today) and call the game consistently at top-level skill and speed are the filters. My inability to be a D-2 college level mid-distance runner keeps me from even thinking about going the National referee route as I can handle the mental aspects of the game well enough.

    Plenty of people can referee. Most but not all of the plenty can referee decent high school games, but the funnel for almost every sport that I know of gets real steep from the high school level game to low college, and gets even steeper to get to Division-1 college and then gets even steeper to get to the professional/top-league levels.

  29. “as calls begin to blow the line people are going to scream bloody murder at the NFL to bring the refs back.”

    why so we can watch the regular officials make some of the same terrible calls and then you will probably be one of the first ones here complaining how much they suck.

  30. Mike, THANK YOU! This is the article I was hoping you’d write after my comments last night. Very fair and balanced to both sides, telling us what each side is after and where they stand. It does make it hard to take the refs side or claim that the NFL is penny-pinching after reading this.

    The NFL could offer a bit more money to get talks moving, and maybe offer some sort of phase out of the pensions as other companies have done (i.e., new employees will be 401k, current pension holders will move to 401k in 2-3 years). This would result in some retirements and allow new blood to be brought in also. It is clear though that the NFLRA needs to do some major compromising here and are the reason this is not getting done.

  31. The refs look like they’re all at least seventy, why are they worried about retirement?

  32. If people knew the intelligence it requires to:
    memorize that many rules,
    and it’s penalties/rewards,
    and combine it with the ability to know when to call something and when to swallow the flag,

    and how not to be intimidated by a huge moment, or a head coach,

    how few officials are even good enough for high school, let alone college, and how 1 in 10,000 makes it to top division 1, and how harder it is to be soooooo good at what you do, a 24-7 effort into studying and keeping up with the rules and evaluating yourself and attending trainings that you earn your way to the NFL after DECADES of practicing…

    I think you’d stop calling it a “hobby” and realize that, due to how few people qualify for this job, it’s worth $150,000 plus a year.

  33. I think the officials are already well compensated, so I don’t have much sympathy for them on that front.

    However, I take exception to categorizing being an official as a ‘hobby’. It is a second job. It has responsibilities, pay, benefits, deadlines, training and evaluations.

  34. The NFLRA is in the same place as MJD. No leverage, and little popular support for their position. They both need the other side of their respective situations to make a gesture which will allow them to save face.

  35. It’s all about the haves and have-nots. The Kings, their kingdom, and the serfs. It’s time for RobbinHood to show up. I and many of my friends will not watch an NFL game until the serfs are compensated appropriately

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