2023 NCAA Women's Tournament: Sagehen Melissa Barlow '87 Wears a Whistle

Referee Melissa Barlow '87 running with UCLA player trailing

March Madness is prime time for Melissa Barlow ’87.

Decades after she played point guard on Pomona-Pitzer’s standout teams of the 1980s, Barlow still runs the floor as an NCAA Division I women’s basketball official.

How good is Barlow?

She has called 10 Final Fours and three NCAA championship games, assignments that are earned through round-by-round reviews by officiating supervisors: The refs survive and advance, much like the teams. 

She has been yelled at by the best in the business—the late Pat Summitt of Tennessee, Geno Auriemma of Connecticut—and can laugh it off later. Barlow calls it as she sees it and then handles the complaints and cajoling.

Two Unexpected Careers

For years, officiating was a sidelight to a highly successful career in the pharmaceutical industry that enabled Barlow to retire at 53 from her job as national sales director for the metabolic division of AbbVie. There was more overlap than you might imagine.

“A lot of things I was learning at my corporate job in sales [apply to officiating], because officiating is a lot like sales: It’s communication; it’s talking to people,” Barlow says after calling a game at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion where she got an occasional earful from Bruins Coach Cori Close—even when she was nowhere near her.

“When Cori Close is trying to ask me a question from across the floor, I’m like, ‘I can’t talk to you from here; I’ll talk to you when I get over there,’” Barlow says. “I’ve been lucky enough to get a lot of training in communication, in assessing people’s communication styles and matching your own. How I talk with Cori Close is very different than how I talk with Tara VanDerveer [of Stanford]. They’re two different people, and they communicate differently. That’s the challenge of it. That’s the fun of it.”

Pulling double duty when she worked a demanding day job while calling 75 or more games a season wasn’t easy.

“I think the most I ever did in a year when I was a bit younger was about 98,” Barlow says. “It was tough because I traveled a lot for work too. So I pretty much was on the road the entire time. And you know, the players will always be 18 to 21. I get a year older every year, so it gets harder.”

A biology major at Pomona, Barlow fell into two careers that weren’t on her radar.

“Like a lot of people, when I graduated I was not really sure what I would do—maybe go to medical school, maybe go to graduate school,” she says. “Then it was August and I’m like, you know, I better do something.”

Her father saw an ad for a job in pharmaceutical sales, and Barlow applied on bit of a lark.

“It was 1987. They offered me a job making $26,500 and I thought I hit the lottery,” she says. “I thought, I’ll do this for a couple of years and it ended up I retired after 31 years. “I started out as a sales rep and at the time of my retirement was national sales director for our metabolic division—Synthroid, one of the most prescribed drugs in the U.S., was our lead drug.”

A year into her career, Barlow knew she hadn’t shaken the allure of hardwood courts and squeaking shoes.

“I just love basketball,” she says. “I knew I didn’t want to coach, though. I knew I wanted a career in business.”

Her coaches at Pomona—Nancy Breitenstein and Nettie Morrison of N&N Gym fame—told her she should try officiating.

“I went the high school route for a little while, but it was different back then,” Barlow says. “There were very few women, so I was lucky enough to get pushed pretty quickly into college and Division I. I think I was in [what is now] the Pac-12 within like four years, working one or two games.”

Choosing the Women’s Game

These days Barlow works games in six conferences—the Pac-12, Mountain West, West Coast Conference, Big West, Big Sky and Western Athletic Conference—and the officiating coordinator for five of them is the trailblazing Violet Palmer, who in 1997 became the first woman to referee an NBA game. Barlow has called games with men’s professional players too, such as summer pro league games, but “I just didn’t enjoy it,” she says.

“The games were fun and challenging but there’s a lot of trash-talking going on. I can do it when need to, but it’s not my preference because it’s just not in my personality. Someone like Pat Summitt, I kind of admire that she had plenty of opportunity—I think they offered her the men’s job at Tennessee on several occasions—and she never felt like, well, to make my legacy complete, I need to do that.”

Summitt, who won eight NCAA titles, died of early-onset Alzheimer’s in 2016. She holds a special place in the lore of Barlow’s career after Barlow called the 2003 NCAA championship game between Tennessee and arch rival Connecticut as UConn won its second championship in a row.

“I think I no-called a play and Pat Summitt just got right up on me and someone snapped the picture and it was in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and my mother was so upset,” Barlow says. “Do you think she feels bad?” her mother asked her. “No, Mom, I don’t think she feels bad that she yelled at me,” Barlow says, laughing.

“I always had it in my head that when I retired, I was going to email Pat Summitt a copy and say, ‘Hey, remember this game? Would you sign this for me?’ She came across as really intense and tough and she was, but she was also just really passionate and caring.”

Summitt’s early death meant that opportunity never came. As Barlow winds down her own career—she’s been lucky to stay mostly injury-free but knows she won’t want to run an average of six miles a game forever—she works to recruit more women who are former players to the field.

“They all think they want to coach. They look at us and they say, ‘Well, I don’t want to get yelled at,’” Barlow says. “It’s not the major part of the job, but that’s what they see. I try to tell them: You get the best seat in the house, you get a workout and they pay you to watch these great games.”

NCAA officials can clear six figures a year if they work full time, Barlow says, but she notes they pay their own health insurance and travel expenses out of their flat-rate fees. One nagging issue is that officials for men’s and women’s games are not always paid equally.

“I’ve been around a while so it’s important to use my voice as a leader,” Barlow says. “So I approached one of our conferences, I won’t say which one, at the Final Four and said, ‘The men’s officials make $1,300 more per game,’” she says. “The games are the same. I’m not getting a cheaper rental car. It costs the same to fly, me or a men’s official.”

The NCAA last year addressed pay equity in the tournament, paying officials for men’s and women’s games the same amount.

“It’s getting better,” Barlow says, noting that the Pac-12 is one of the conferences that practices gender equity by paying referees equally. “Other ones, there’s still quite a gap,” she says. “We’ve been fighting for that. It’s wrong.”

Despite the challenges, Barlow loves what she does and calls officiating “addicting.”

“It’s the focus,” she says. “It’s wanting to call the perfect game, which you never will.”