If you could choose to be one of the 23 people on the soccer pitch, what would be your last choice? Yes, you read that right, 23. Eleven players for each side, plus the ever maligned, occasionally praised, always scrutinized, referee. Those ladies and gents in yellow who can turn the tide of a high-stakes match with one decision. You can clearly tell what would be my last choice.
Being a referee is a tough job. Not only do you have to be physically fit – some reports claim that professional referees run more on average than a typical outfield player – you also need to be extremely detail-oriented. Making impactful decisions in seconds can be very intense.
At best, you end a match with a satisfactory performance and some off-hand praise about how you handled the match “well.” At worst, you can have large groups of people ready to pounce on you after the game due to a wrong or unfair decision made.
Naturally, one may wonder, how much does this pressure pay? Do referees make a lot of money? The answer, of course, is it depends. A referee in the World Cup Final will make a ton more money than a referee officiating a match in the English Football League Division 2.
The higher the stakes, the higher the pay. There is substantial variation in referee compensation across the world’s top leagues.
MLS Referee Salary
Let’s start with the USA, specifically, Major League Soccer (MLS). Lagging behind its European counterparts, the MLS is an up and coming soccer league on the global stage. According to sports blog Sportekz, professional referees in the MLS earn:
- $850 per match and an annual salary of $55,000 for professional referees
- $150 per match and an annual salary of $5,000 for part-time, rookie referees
As the MLS grows in popularity and starts attracting top talent from around the world, you can expect the demand for top-notch refereeing to rise as well alongside their compensation.
Referee Salary In Europe
The top-tier European leagues have the largest audience-base globally. Naturally, the refereeing roles for these leagues are most coveted. Even within the European tiers, however, there is variation in how much referees get paid.
Numerous factors can influence referee earnings, including labor laws & regulations, union power, and league structure. Below, I examine referee earnings in Champions League matches and top-tier European leagues.
Europe - Champions League
The Holy Grail for referees, the Champions League hosts matches for Europe’s elite clubs. Naturally, these matches tend to hire the best referees in the world. The UCL compensates referees handsomely. Sportekz reports Champions League referee earnings as:
- Elite referees can make between $6,500 to $10,000 per match as the main referee. Non-elite referees can make between $1,000 – $3,000 per match.
- As assistant referees, elite officials make between $2,000 – $3,000 per match, whereas non-elite officials make between $350 – $750 per match.
Besides the high compensation, refereeing UCL matches can be an element of prestige for a referee’s career.
England - Premier League
The EPL is the most popular league in the world. With global giants like Manchester United and Liverpool, and upcoming giants like Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester City, and Tottenham Hotspur, the EPL is the most competitive top-tier European leagues. The league title has gone from a two-horse race in the early 2000s to a five-way competition in recent times. It never fails to entertain! According to Sportekz and other sources, EPL referee earnings are as follows:
- $2,060 per match and an annual salary of $66,000 – $274,000 for the match referee
- $960 – $1,160 per match and an annual salary of $41,000 for the assistant referee
- $960 – $1,160 per match and an annual salary of $41,000 for the video assistant referee
EPL officials are paid handsomely per match, but their La Liga counterparts are compensated much better on an overall basis, as we’ll see below.
Spain - La Liga
The second most popular league in the world, La Liga is the home to football giants Barcelona and Real Madrid. One would expect referees to earn a sizeable income given how feisty some of these encounters can get. Sportekz reports La Liga referee earnings as follows:
- $7,280 per match, and an annual salary of up to $300,000 for the match referee
- $3,640 per match, and an annual salary of up to $85,000 for the assistant referee
- $4,250 per match, and an annual salary of up to $103,000 for the video assistant referee
Refereeing in La Liga is very lucrative, making the referees some of the world’s highest-paid match officials.
Germany - Bundesliga
Home to historic clubs like Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, the Bundesliga has a large following globally. It’s not surprising that Bundesliga referees would make less money than La Liga referees. However, the scale of the difference is incredible! Sportekz reports Bundesliga referee earnings as follows:
- $4,600 per match, and an annual salary of $51,000 – $84,000 for the match referee
- $1,200 per match, and an annual salary of $22,000 – $30,000 for the assistant referee
- $1,200 per match, and an annual salary of $22,000 – $30,000 for the video assistant referee
Italy - Serie A
The Serie A boasts of mammoth clubs like AC Milan, Inter Milan, and Juventus. AC Milan hold the second most Champions League titles after Real Madrid and were a dominant force in the late 90s and early 2000s. The Milan clubs may have suffered a recent decline in their results, but Juventus continues to dominate the Serie A with Cristiano Ronaldo’s arrival. Sportekz reports Serie A referee earnings as follows:
- $4,100 per match, and an annual salary of up to $205,000 for the match referee
- $1,160 per match, and an unidentified annual salary for the assistant referee
- $1,160 per match, and an unidentified annual salary for the video assistant referee
France - Ligue 1
Home to the Qatari-owned Paris St Germain, the French Ligue 1 undeservedly gets the reputation of an “easy” league. However, with fierce competitors such as Olympique Lyon and AS Monaco, it is anything but an easy league. French clubs have frequently upset top European clubs in the knockout stages of the Champions League.
More recently, PSG is heavily investing in its squad to chase the ever-elusive Champions League title for a French club (only Marseille have won the Champions League). Sportekz reports Ligue 1 referee earnings as follows:
- $3,400 per match, and an annual salary of up to $227,000 for the match referee
- $960 per match, and an unidentified annual salary for the assistant referee
- $960 per match, and an unidentified annual salary for the video assistant referee
Portugal - Liga NOS
The Liga NOS or Primeira Liga may not be the most dominant force in European football, but is home to historic clubs such as FC Porto and Benfica. It also tends to be the starter league for many stars, including Cristiano Ronaldo, scooped up by Manchester United from Sporting Lisbon (more recently, this same transaction was executed for Bruno Fernandes, who has substantially impacted United’s fortunes in the EPL). Jose Mourinho announced his arrival in the Liga NOS by winning the Champions League with FC Porto in 2004. Sportekz reports Liga NOS referee earnings as follows:
- $1,370 per match, and an annual salary of up to $130,000 for the match referee
- $685 per match, and an unidentified annual salary for the assistant referee
- $685 per match, and an unidentified annual salary for the video assistant referee
The Netherlands - Eredivisie
Like the Liga NOS, the dutch top tier isn’t as competitive as its French or German counterparts. However, it does have a rich history and giant clubs like Ajax and PSV Eindhoven. Ajax have won the Champions League title four times, one more than English giants Manchester United (who’ve only won it thrice), and only one fewer than FC Barcelona. More recently, Ajax have focused heavily on their youth, resulting in some stellar players rising from their ranks: Donny van de Beek, Frankie de Jong, and Matthijs de Ligt, to name a few. Sportekz reports Eredivisie referee earnings as follows:
- $1,370 per match, and an annual salary of up to $96,000 for the match referee
- $750 per match, and an unidentified annual salary for the assistant referee
- $750 per match, and an unidentified annual salary for the video assistant referee
Youth Referee Salary
Of course, the top tier leagues compensate match officials very well. However, most referees start their careers in lower leagues and youth football.
Ziprecruiter reports youth referee salaries in the US range between $16,000 – $77,000 annually, with an average of $38,000.
In the UK, Glassdoor reports youth salaries in the FA and other football organizations around $22/hour.
There’s likely a ton of variation in compensation depending on your location, type of league you officiate, years of experience, and other factors. On the surface, however, it appears that youth refereeing is usually a stepping stone for advanced leagues or a part-time career.
While refereeing is not for me personally, I have immense respect for match officials who take on this responsibility. They have to withstand pressures from the crowd, the players, the managers, the media, and themselves while maintaining excellent conduct and respect during matches.
They have to spot and make decisions in split seconds (thankfully with some back-up now with Video Assistant Referees) that can change the direction of high-stakes matches. I believe top-tier referees deserve every penny they earn due to the job’s fitness and mental requirements.
Top-tier referees earn a reasonable wage and can definitely make a full-time living off their careers. There is substantial variation over the leagues. However, La Liga seems to be the most lucrative option, followed by the English Premier League. All of Europe’s top leagues pay their referees reasonably well. Major League Soccer naturally lags behind in compensation given the popularity of the sport in the USA.
Next time you complain about La Liga referees making too much money, just try and imagine yourself in this situation: