How To Become a Basketball Referee

Ready To Put On The Stripes? Here's What You Need To Know

Becoming a basketball referee isn't for everyone.  You'll be dealing with coaches who complain about every call, and parents who know nothing about basketball telling you how to do your job.  Yep, being a basketball referee isn't easy, but it can be a rewarding career if you have the confidence in your abilities to call a game effectively.

Just how rewarding?  Well, if you go all the way to the NBA, you'll be earning 150k from the get-go, and that can go to upwards of 550k! With that kind of earnings potential you may be saying "Where do I sign up?" Not so fast my friend, as you won't be starting in the best basketball league in the world.  No, you will likely start officiating in youth leagues and begin to work your way up. In these youth leagues you can expect to make $20-$30 per game for the opportunity to get berated by Little Jimmy's alcoholic father.  Yeah, not so glamorous.

If you're still reading this I assume I haven't scared you off and you are still set on learning more about a career as a basketball ref.  For you brave souls I've put together some tips on how to get started, good luck!

1. Join NASO

The NASO, while not as prestigious as NASA, is a big deal for referees of all sports. NASO stands for National Association of Sports Officials.  They are the premiere organization for officials all around the USA. You'll find some great information on how to get started as a basketball official from NASO here.

From there you should look for local or statewide officiating organizations.  For example, I live in Ohio, so if I was looking to become a referee I'd also join the OHSAA. Having the support of the local organization will help you as you begin your basketball officiating journey.

2. Complete The Required Training 

Every state is different so you'll want to look up your state's requirements for becoming an official.  Again, using Ohio as an example, you'll want to go this OHSAA page and start the process of taking the course to become an official. I'd recommend looking a for a similar page from your state's high school athletics association.  

Starting with youth sports? If so, we'd recommend checking out the National Association of Youth Sports officials page.  This page will show you how to become a member and what training is required to become NAYS certified.

Many courses are web-based so you can do them from home.  At the end there is usually a test that you'll have to pass with a certain percentage of answers correct to qualify.

3. Start To Officiate

Find your local youth basketball league and look to see if they need officials. Likely, they will as it is hard to find good referees at this level. 

If you want to go straight to the high school level, that may be an option depending on your location.  Just expect to officiate freshman games to get your start.  You won't get to officiate varsity level games until you've shown an ability to effectively manage games at the lower levels.  For this you'll reach out to your local officials association to get started. 

Be sure to train yourself both mentally and physical.  I'd strongly recommend a basic cardio fitness program so that you can get up and down the court without getting winded.  This way you can focus on making calls rather than trying to catch your breath.  If you have time add a bit of basic strength training as well to help prevent injury.

While most will skip this, I'd also recommend that for those looking to officiate to consider practicing regular mindfulness training.  This could be as simple as doing 10 minutes of mindfulness meditation per day or some yoga.  Either way, it will help you to stay in the moment and not get too emotional when things get heated in a game situation.

4. Learn Your League Rules

Not every league as the same rules.  This is especially true for local youth basketball games.  For instance, when I coached 5th grade youth basketball they had several special rules.  

For instance, you could not full court press until 2 minutes left in the game, and only if you were down 10 or more points.  Each team got one timeout per half. Only man-to-man defense was allowed (no zones).  As you can see, even for an official at these youth levels you needed to do some studying to make sure you knew each of these unique rules.

Unfortunately, most of the officials in the league did not abide by these. Hey, that just means there's more room for potential quality refs like yourself!

5. Realize You Won't Be Perfect

Perfection is one of those things that we all want but can't have.  And there are few professions where this is more obvious than basketball officiating.  No matter how good you are you'll always have a call or two that you miss during a game. Heck, those NBA refs that make all that money miss plenty of calls.

The point here is to not put too high of expectations on yourself.  You're doing your best, and you will have to remember that even when a coach and half the fans are screaming in your ear about how much you suck; not an easy task.

Fall back on your training and experience.  Learn from your mistakes and keep your head up when things aren't going well.  The more you remind yourself that not being perfect is okay and the less validation you need from others, the better. At the end of the day, you have the whistle and control of the situation.

6. Get Ready For Parents and Coaches

Coaches want to win games.  There's no doubt about that.  And for good reason, their jobs are often on the line.  You'll certainly run into your fair share of hot-headed coaches who will curse you and belittle your abilities as an official.  While you may want to chuck this coach off of a cliff you must stay objective.  Don't be afraid to set the tone with a technical foul if things start to get out of hand. You deserve respect, just like every other human being.  

While coaches may be bad, parents are worse.  Because unlike coaches, parents most likely have limited to no experience with the game of basketball no matter what they tell themselves.  On top of this, some parents' priorities are off and they are living through their kids, a sad situation to be sure.  Again, stay objective.  You can't punish a team for their fans. You should not be afraid to through a fan/parent out if they threaten or try to harm you or are using language that is not appropriate in a high school or lesser league.  

7. Move Up, Make More Money

While it can be said that good basketball officials make themselves invisible. They don't interfere with the flow of the game and allow for players to play without tolerating excessive contact.

Once you've shown yourself worthy, you'll have the opportunity to move up. Whether that's to high school varsity, or you get into doing collegiate games your task will become even tougher.  As the players get bigger, faster, and more skilled, making the correct call will become more difficult.  

Each step up will likely require more ref training to make sure you're up to the task. Be prepared to take tests with required minimum scores to qualify.

With the greater responsibility comes greater pay.  For division I refs you can expect to earn $1000-$3000 per game.  With upwards of 75 games officiated in a season, you can be topping six figures pretty easily.

8. Stay Sharp

Officiating is like learning a language, you've got to use what you've learned or you'll lose it.  That means you need to referee games regularly to keep your skills sharp and to improve over time.  Don't expect to keep your same level of skill if you've not worked in a year.  

To keep your skills honed, take every opportunity to officiate basketball games. Even if you are used to reffing high school games, don't be afraid to take on some youth league or even summer camp opportunities.  Doing so will keep you on your game and give you a leg up on your officiating competition.


It's safe to say that officiating isn't for everyone.  You've got to love the game of basketball and have a demeanor that doesn't rattle easily.  If you can keep your nerve and stay objective, you can move your way up to a pretty lucrative career.  

Whether part-time or full-time, officiating basketball games can be rewarding. You get to travel a lot and you'll always be right in the action.  Follow the steps I've outlined above and you'll be well on your way to becoming a quality basketball official.

Nick Daniels

Nick is has been a student of the game of basketball most of his life. He loves writing about all things hoops and basketball gear.