NCAA conferences wrestle with equal pay for women’s basketball referees

Head coach Dawn Staley of the South Carolina Gamecocks argues a call with a referee in the second quarter against the Louisville Cardinals during the 2022 NCAA Women's Final Four.
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The NCAA earned praise last year when it agreed to pay referees at its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments equally. The gesture only cost about $100,000, a tiny fraction of the roughly $900 million networks pay annually to broadcast March Madness.

Now, as the NCAA examines various disparities across men’s and women’s sports, pressure is rising to also pay referees equally during the regular season. Two Division I conferences told The Associated Press they plan to equalize pay, and another is considering it. Others are resisting change, even though the impact on their budgets would be negligible.

“The ones that are (equalizing pay) are reading the writing on the wall,” said Michael Lewis, a marketing professor at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School.

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

That level of disparity is wider than the gender pay gap across the U.S. economy, where women earn 82 cents for every dollar a man earns, according to the 2020 census. And it is an overwhelming disadvantage for women, who make up less than 1% of the referees officiating men’s games.

Dawn Staley, the head coach for the University of South Carolina Gamecocks — the women’s national champions — said referees on the men’s side should be “stepping up” and advocating for equal pay for women’s referees. “They don’t do anything different,” she said. “Why should our officials get 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 direct knowledge of pay scales, and they did so on condition of anonymity because the information is considered private.

The Northeast Conference had the widest per-game pay disparity among the NCAA leagues AP analyzed, with the most experienced referees for men’s games earning 48% more. The Atlantic-10 paid veteran men’s refs 44% more, while the Colonial Athletic Association paid them 38% more. (Only the Ivy League paid veteran officials equally in the data AP reviewed.)

Of the conferences with unequal pay contacted by AP, two — the Pac-12 and the Northeast 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 is reviewing equity for officials in all sports. “Pay is part of that,” commissioner Jennifer Heppel said.

The Pac-12 paid referees equally a decade ago, but allowed a disparity to build over time, according to associate commissioner Teresa Gould. She said returning to equal pay is “the right thing to do.”

NEC commissioner Noreen Morris said the decision to equalize pay was an easy one to make once it realized that basketball was the only sport where it was not compensating referees equally.

Relative to the amounts of money these leagues generate, the cost of bridging the pay gap can 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 couple hundred thousand dollars to pay them equally — a sliver of the $3 billion deal it signed with ESPN to broadcast all of its sports starting in 2024.

The most experienced Division I referees — for men’s or women’s games — are well paid. Some earn more than $150,000 in a season, officiating dozens of games across multiple conferences. Newer referees earn far less, supplementing income from another job.

All NCAA referees are independent contractors, with no union representing their interests, and all have to cover their own travel expenses.

The busiest referees can work five or six games a week in different cities, running up and down the court for 40 minutes one night, getting a few hours of sleep, and then waking up at 4 a.m. to catch a flight to their next destination.

Dee Kantner, a veteran referee of women’s games who works for multiple conferences, finds it frustrating to have to justify equal pay.

“If I buy an airline ticket and tell them I’m doing a women’s basketball game they aren’t going to charge me less,” she said.

“Do you value women’s basketball that much less?” Kantner said. “How are we rationalizing this still?”

Several conference commissioners said the men’s and women’s games do not generate equal amounts of revenue, and that the level of play is not equal, and so referee salaries are set accordingly.

“Historically we have treated each referee pool 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 referees working its men’s games 22% more, and Ackerman said there is no imminent plan 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 get the most experienced, most qualified officials in the country,” she said.

Veteran referees officiating in the Atlantic-10 are paid $3,300 for men’s games, compared with $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 show.

Of the roughly 800 referees officiating women’s basketball this past season, 43% were female, a proportion that’s been relatively consistent over the past decade. But just six women officiated men’s games last year — a number that has slowly grown over the last few years.

Penny Davis, the NCAA’s supervisor of officials, said conferences are trying to recruit more women to officiate men’s games, which is another way to help bridge 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 brightest,” she said.

A decade ago, referees working the men’s and women’s NCAA Tournament were paid equally. But as the profitability of the men’s tournament skyrocketed, it’s budget grew too — and so did pay for referees.

Both McGlade and Ackerman praised the NCAA for restoring equal pay at the March tournaments. “We’re mindful of the what the NCAA did 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 a while ago that it was the right thing to do to pay them the same amount. They are doing the same job.”

Justine Wong-Orantes’ atypical path to becoming one of the best liberos in the world

Justine Wong-Orantes hits the ball in the women's semi-final volleyball match between USA and Serbia during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
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It’s been 20 years since the same nation held both the Olympic and world volleyball titles at the same time, but libero Justine Wong-Orantes is looking to help lead Team USA accomplish that very feat at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championships in the Netherlands and Poland. Competition began on Friday and the U.S. is currently 2-0 after group play wins against Kazakhstan and Canada.

“We’re trying to win, for sure,” Wong-Orantes told On Her Turf. “I think, especially with the new turn of the program and the new year of the quad, we just have a really nice blend of veterans and also newcomers on the team.”

The 14-woman roster for Team USA, which is ranked No. 1 in the world and won its first Olympic title last summer, features six players from that gold-medal-winning team. And while Wong-Orantes is among the 2021 U.S. Olympic team veterans, she’s still a relative newcomer to international play.

The Southern California native enjoyed a notable junior career – she was 12 when she became the youngest female to ever earn an AAA rating in beach volleyball – and was a standout collegian at Nebraska, where she was a member of the 2015 NCAA championship team. But Wong-Orantes followed a different path upon graduation, initially choosing not to go overseas to play professionally.

While she was first selected for the U.S. national team in 2016 and played a handful of international tournaments in the following years, it wasn’t until she started playing professionally in Germany in 2019 that she saw the potential to elevate her position on the roster. In particular, the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Olympics gave her an additional year of overseas experience, which she calls “a blessing in disguise.”

“I just felt like I was still in that developmental stage,” she said. “And a whole year postponement allowed me to go overseas and really get all the touches, all the repetitions, and just kind of expose myself to international volleyball another year. So I was, in hindsight, pretty thankful for that COVID season because I got an extra year under my belt, and I think that just gave me a ton of confidence.”

Ahead of the Olympics, Wong-Orantes earned “best libero” honors at the 2021 FIVB Volleyball National League in Rimini, Italy, which helped secure her spot on the Olympic roster. In Tokyo, she followed up with another standout performance and was named best libero of the Olympic tournament.

As to how the Wong-Orantes transformed into one of the world’s top liberos, she points to her background as a beach volleyball player. She began competing at age 8, and her first partner was Sara Hughes, a star on the AVP Pro Tour who also won two NCAA titles with USC.

“I think having that background and just the court awareness that beach volleyball forces you to have allowed me to really have a good read on the game,” said Wong-Orantes. “I think that’s what makes a great libero is just reading and always being reactive towards the ball.”

Wong-Orantes also credits the assistance of mental coach Sue Enquist, a former UCLA softball coach and U.S. national team coach, who now helps teams work on their culture and relationships. Enquist began working with the U.S. volleyball team during the pandemic and has continued in her role ever since.

“We just worked on a lot of stuff within ourselves, within our program, how to communicate with each other off the court, and I think that honestly propelled us into such a high, high level with how we worked with each other, and then that transferred onto the court,” explained Wong-Orantes, who noted the team has Enquist on speed dial while at the World Championship. “I really commend Sue. I just really give a lot of praise to her because I think our culture was never bad, but I think [she] just transformed into a different level.”

2022-09-26 - FIVB Volleyball Womens World Championship 2022 - Day 4
ARNHEM, NETHERLANDS – Justine Wong-Orantes (far right) poses for a photo with her U.S. teammates after defeating Canada at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championship on September 26, 2022. (Photo by Rene Nijhuis/Orange Pictures/BSR Agency/Getty Images)

Wong-Orantes said she and her U.S. teammates are on their toes for the world championships, which features twice as many teams (24) as the Olympics and a “more grueling” format.

“It’s going to be a long tournament, and I think we’re really going to need all 14 of us that are here. I’m pretty certain that, at any given moment, someone’s going to be called on and someone’s going to need to step up in big moments.”

2022 Ascendant LPGA: How to watch, who’s playing in Texas’s annual signature event

Atthaya Thitikul of Thailand hits her second shot on the 16th hole during the final round of the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.
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The LPGA make its annual stop in The Colony, Texas, this week for the 10th edition of the Ascendant LPGA benefiting Volunteers of America, where Thailand’s 19-year-old rookie Atthaya Thitikul comes in hot off her second career win and second playoff victory this season at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.

Leading the 132-player field at Old American Golf Club, located at Golf Clubs at The Tribute, are Texas residents and past champions Cheyenne Knight and Angela Stanford. They’ll compete for the $1.7 million prize purse alongside major champions Nelly KordaLydia Ko and Brooke Henderson. Last year’s Ascendant LPGA champion, world No. 1 Jin Young Ko, will not be defending her title after announcing earlier this month she would be missing several weeks due to a nagging wrist injury.

This past weekend in Arkansas, Thitikul took the lead with a 10-under 61 in the second round and shot 68 in the final round to finish regulation tied with Danielle Kang at 17-under 196. Thitikul, who won the JTBC Classic in March in a two-hole playoff vs. Nanna Koerstz Madsen, drained an 8-foot birdie putt on the second playoff hole to secure the win over Kang.


How to watch the 2022 Ascendant LPGA 

Coverage of the 2022 Ascendant LPGA from Old American Golf Club in The Colony, Texas, can be found on Golf Channel, with streaming options available any time on any mobile device and online through NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app.

  • Thursday, Sept. 29: 12:30-3:30 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Friday, Sept. 30: 12:30-3:30 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Saturday, Oct. 1: 1-4 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Sunday, Oct. 2: 1-4 p.m. ET, Golf Channel

Who’s playing in the 2022 Ascendant LPGA

Six of the top 10 players in the Rolex World Rankings are among the field in Texas, including:

  • No. 2 Nelly Korda
  • No. 4 Lydia Ko
  • No. 5 Atthaya Thitikul
  • No. 6 Brooke Henderson
  • No. 7 Lexi Thompson
  • No. 10 Nasa Hataoka

A number of local Texans also are in the tournament, headlined by past champions, Angela Stanford (2020) and Cheyenne Knight (2019), and two junior champions of the Volunteers of America Classic Girls Championship, who are playing on a sponsor exemption: Yunxuan (Michelle) Zhang (2022), a freshman at SMU, and Avery Zweig (2021), a high school sophomore from McKinney, Texas.


Past five champions of The Ascendant LPGA

YEAR WINNER SCORE MARGIN RUNNERUP
2021 Jin Young Ko (South Korea) 16-under 268 1 stroke Matilda Castren
2020 Angela Stanford (USA) 7-under 277 2 strokes So Yeon Ryu, Inbee Park, Yealimi Noh
2019 Cheyenne Knight (USA) 18-under 266 2 strokes Brittany Altomare, Jaye Marie Green
2018 Sung Hyun Park (South Korea) 11-under 131 1 stroke Lindy Duncan
2017 Haru Nomura (Japan) 3-under 281 Playoff Christie Kerr

Last time at The Ascendant LPGA

South Korea’s Jin Young Ko carded a final-round 69 to maintain her 54-hole lead at Old American Golf Club and held on for a one stroke win at the 2021 Volunteers of America Classic, her eighth career LPGA tour title. Ko finished regulation at 16-under 268, edging Finland’s Matilda Castren by one stroke.

It kicked off a five-win season for Ko, who had just lost her No. 1 ranking to Nelly Korda the week prior after holding the top spot for 100 straight weeks. She regained the No. 1 ranking back in October 2021, after earning her fourth win in seven starts at the BMW Ladies Championship.


More about Old American Golf Club

Opened in 2010, the Old American Golf Club is one of two clubs at The Tribute, a lakefront resort community on Lewisville Lake in The Colony, Texas. Designed by Tripp Davis and 12-time PGA Tour winner Justin Leonard, Old American plays as a Par 71 and stretches to 6,475 yards on the tournament scorecard.