An NFL chain gang is an important part of every game in the league. The members of the chain crew are tasked with tracking the location of the ball in relation to the line of gain needed for the offense to get a first down.
When a team is going for a first down, every inch counts so it is critical for the chain gang to always be accurate with its measurements. But most football fans probably don’t know much about the people who make up each of the league’s chain crews. Who are the keepers of the chain and how much do they make?
The role of the NFL chain gang
The chain connects two signal poles to indicate how far the team on offense must go in order to get the first down. There are three members of the crew, one holding the pole at the original line of scrimmage from the start of the drive, one holding a pole at the current line of scrimmage, and a third holding a pole indicating the position of the line of gain needed for the first down.
When there is a play that ends close to the first down marker, the chain crew runs onto the field, helping the game officials determine whether the offense got the yardage needed for the first down.
How to become part of the crew
The league’s top players can make tens of millions of dollars in a season and the NFL has billions of dollars in annual revenue, so you would think the league would want to ensure the best people possible are in charge of the chains.
That’s not necessarily the case, though, because the NFL does not hire full-time employees to work on the chain gangs. In fact, the members of each chain crew are hired by the home team. They are usually well-respected local high school and college officials, but the problem is they may not be as unbiased as they should be.
The members of a chain gang may be fans of the home team, raising the possibility of some bias in their actions. A profile of the 49ers’ crew in the days leading up to Super Bowl 50 at Levi’s Stadium described one member of the crew as “a longtime 49ers fan.”
Don’t expect to see any job postings for a chain crew anytime soon because once someone lands the position, they usually keeps it for decades, and may even pass the position down to family members. For such a crucial aspect of the game, the league doesn’t seem to be too concerned about who they have working on their chain gangs.
How much do NFL chain gangs make?
For years, fans have wanted the NFL to start using more modern technology to improve first-down measurements, but the league continues to resist and still uses the chain system. With three members of each crew and as many as 16 games being played each week of the season, you might think the league would want to eliminate the need for those 48 people, who are being paid for the work they’re doing.
But when you find out how much the chain crews make, you’ll begin to understand why that cost isn’t a big issue for the NFL. Each member of a typical NFL chain gang makes less than $100 per game, which is nothing for an organization the size of the NFL whose owners are worth billions.
As of 2013, the members of the Ravens’ chain gang each made $72 per game, according to the Baltimore Sun. In 2015, the Star Tribune reported that the Vikings’ crew members earned $50 per game each, along with two end-zone tickets for friends and family. For such an important job, these people earn less than NFL waterboys.