Referees join the financial big league

In Australia, rugby league referees earn pounds 50,000 a year. But coul d it happen here? To some extent it already has, with union officials receiving pounds 400 for an international. John Roberts reports on officials' growing income
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A sporting world dominated by money appears to have recognised that the people who endeavour to ensure fair play also have bills to pay.

The Rugby Football League, anticipating an era of pounds 87m Super League prosperity, is even considering appointing full-time referees in line with their Australian counterparts, who can earn up to pounds 50,000 a year.

"We're looking at the whole structure of match officials with the knowledge that in Australia they've gone full-time," said Greg McCallum, the RFL's director of referees, who are part-timers paid pounds 140 per match.

McCallum added: "Obviously, the guys over here ask the question, albeit politely at the moment, 'What's our position?' You can't blame them for that. It's certainly something that won't go away. Whether our game economically could withstand half a dozen guys going full-time remains to be seen, but it also remains to be seen in Australia as well.

"As I've told the guys here, the best thing to do is for us to sit back and watch with interest what's occurring in Australia and, if the game is better for it, well, obviously, we then take that into account."

The latest development in the commercial revolution of football's handling codes follows rugby union's decision to extend the hard currency of professionalism to referees and touch judges. Those officiating in the Five Nations' Championship this year qualify for match fees for the first time: referees pounds 400; touch judges pounds 200; and reserve referees pounds 100.

"It was felt that it was wrong entirely for the 30 people on the field to be receiving, with the case of England, pounds 2,000, and the referee not enjoying anything at all," Bob Weighill, secretary of the Five Nations committee, said. "And, of course, the fee could possibly go up, because there is even a suggestion that they should enjoy the amount of money that players are receiving. But that is for discussion."

The introduction of match fees, however, is likely to result in a reduction of the currently lavish expenses. "The referee is on a red carpet from the time he leaves home until he gets back home," Weighill said, "but after this season a lot of the perks which a referee used to get will probably cease because he's being paid."

Refereeing in English football is a game of two halves, depending whether the whistle is being blown in the Premiership or the Endsleigh League. The 19 Premier League referees are paid pounds 325 per match, and the 40-odd in the Endsleigh League receive pounds 175.

There is a snag for the Premier Leaguers: they only get to officiate two matches a month on average, whereas those in the Endsleigh League have three divisions spread before them. Over a season that can mean 20 matches more. The dichotomy is a source of concern, and not only from the financial aspect.

"We would like our referees to referee in the Football League as well," Colin Downey, of the Football Association, said. "If they're only getting two games we're worried about what they do for the other two Saturdays a month. In the meantime we try to get them FA Cup matches and we give them the FA Trophy and even Youth Cup matches to keep them in practice."

Some referees, Downey added, would consider two big matches a month to be enough. "It wouldn't have been enough for me, because I liked to referee lots of matches, but other people quite like a break from it," he said.

Although the subject of full-time referees surfaces after almost every controversial decision - a higher level of physical fitness might help, but human fallibility would remain - the majority of officials have jobs. "Some referees aren't working that much, or aren't working at all, but that's their choice," Downey said.

The rewards have improved. "In 1987-88 I got pounds 60 for refereeing a match in the top division, and that's gone up over five times," Downey said. But a desire to be part of the sport, abuse and all, remains paramount.

While the same might also be said of cricket, the 26 umpires on the first- class list are able to build on a basic salary of about pounds 12,000, which is equivalent to the pay of a capped county player.

Leading umpires receive bonuses according to length of service. Many of those who stand in Test matches also benefit from membership of the international panel, sponsored by National Grid in a pounds 1.1m deal with the International Cricket Council. However, the 12 umpires at the forthcoming World Cup will be paid by the tournament's organising committee.

Wimbledon's fees for umpires and line judges have been price-indexed since 1989. The current rates for the 360 officials required for the fortnight range from pounds 35 per day, plus expenses, for the least experienced line judge to pounds 100 per day, plus expenses, for the most experienced chair umpire.

"One could say that with the exception of Wimbledon officiating is still basically amateur, apart from a few designates at professional events," John Relf, administrative officer of the British Tennis Umpires Association, said. "If you look at the typical satellite tournament, we would probably send in 25 officials in total on any one day, and of those only two would be in receipt of a fee.

"In this country," Relf added, "there are probably about 10 who try to earn their living from full-time officiating. But they can't do it in this country, they've got to travel the world to do it."

The International Tennis Federation employs a "core group" of 10 professional chair umpires at rates averaging about $2,000 (pounds 1,300) per week plus expenses. Bruno Rebeuh, the French umpire who had to deal with the tantrums of both Jeff Tarango and the American player's wife at Wimbledon, features on the ITF's panel.

Similar rates are paid to the eight full-time professional umpires on the men's ATP Tour, among them Britain's Gerry Armstrong, remembered for disqualifying John McEnroe at the 1990 Australian Open.

Fees for professional boxing referees, who have to make critical judgements concerning a fighter's safety, vary for local tournaments, British championship bouts and world title contests sanctioned by the myriad world governing bodies. "For a major world championship fight, the referee is likely to get five figures in dollars," John Morris, secretary of the British Boxing Board of Control, said.

Speaking of dollars, basketball referees recently ended their pay dispute with the NBA by accepting a 60 per cent increase over five years, giving them $261,000 (pounds 174,000) this season, rising to $328,000 (pounds 219,000) in 1999-2000.

"With this new agreement, the NBA maintains that the referees would be the highest paid in sport in the United States," the NBA's Evan Silverman said.

It was the closest of calls, passed by a single vote.

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