Crunching the staggering travel numbers of referees

It has become a regular part of the college basketball season.

At the end (or near it) of the NCAA Tournament, the basketball-reading public is treated to write-ups, videos and diatribes outlining the crazy things NCAA game officials go through to earn big money blowing into whistles. Every year it's the same song; Every year nothing changes.

Great pieces like this one from writer Mike Waters are chock full of crazy numbers:

"[Referee Jamie] Luckie worked nine games in nine consecutive days from Dec. 28 to Jan 5, including a New Year’s Day game between Syracuse and DePaul in Chicago the day after calling Louisville-Kentucky in Lexington, Ky. Roger Ayers called 11 games in 13 days between Jan. 28 and Feb. 9. Bryan Kersey refereed a whopping 17 games in 19 days, starting on Dec. 28 and ending Jan. 15."

But what no one seems to have yet calculated is just have many miles top officials rack up over the course of a season. With the help of Statsheet's referee database, I couldn't help but try my hand. What I found didn't disappoint.

Methodology (You can skip this part)

Using Statsheet I found game schedules for the 25 most-worked D-I referees this season. I extracted the cities and states from that data, and plugged it into a batch GPS coordinate converter that gave me mathematical points that I could use for calculating distances.

After figuring straight-line distances between all those cities using Excel macros, I had a large set of distance data that I simply summed for each referee.

What does that all mean (and why did I explain all that)? Well, it means that these numbers aren't perfect, but they provide a decently-close but conservative illustration of travel figures.

Why aren't they perfect? Airports aren't exactly in the same spot where games are played, airplanes don't always travel in straight lines and road-going vehicles definitely don't travel in perfect lines. My numbers however, do represent straight lines, and are therefore lower than they should be. Furthermore, there's no way of knowing whether refs make trips home (although there seems to be no time for that) or elsewhere during the course of their travel. There's simply no way to reasonably account for that stuff.

The Numbers (The good stuff)

76,170 miles were traveled by veteran PAC-12 and Mountain West referee David Hall this season, at a minimum. That's roughly equal to three trips around the globe and more than any official that I studied. It's a result of the region that he works where things are just … spread out. Hall worked 92 games this season, and has been on the job for at least 12 seasons.

49,635 miles and 43,475 miles were traveled, respectively by Roger Ayers and Karl Hess who both ranked No. 1 for most games worked this season (98 each). Since both worked primarily ACC and Big East games, each likely made around $343,000 apiece for the year based on a $3,500 per-game rate that top officials can earn.

9,700 miles were traveled in just five days by Ayers when he flew direct from Virginia for the Maui Invitational and then straight to New York afterwards.

1,113,893 total miles were logged by the 25 referees that I included in my research this season. That's roughly equal to 455 trips from L.A. to New York City and enough to produce 336 tons of green house gasses.

518 miles marked the average single-game travel distance among the 25 refs my data included. As a rough comparison, 481 straight-line miles separate New York City and Detroit.

17,501,148 — Alright, this is a bit of a reaching extrapolation. But if I apply the average 518-mile trip to the 11,262 games played by all teams this season, figuring in three refs per game, we get 17.5 million miles. I challenge the world to improve on that figure.

6 hours were spent researching this piece. In that time, Hess could have made $10,500.

The Data