MLS to lock out refs in contract dispute, use replacements

League: MLS

Posted on: 17 Feb, 2024 at 09:11 PM

Credit: Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

Major League Soccer is set to start the season with replacement referees, after the union representing MLS officials overwhelmingly rejected a new collective bargaining agreement proposed by its employer, the Professional Referees Organization (PRO), the league said Saturday.

Officials from the Professional Soccer Referees Association (PSRA) union will be locked out starting at midnight ET on Saturday. The MLS season opens Wednesday with Lionel Messi's Inter Miami hosting Real Salt Lake, followed by a full slate of games over the weekend.

The move comes in response to the union's rejection of a five-year package that PRO claims would increase overall compensation by 25 percent.

"We made meaningful progress during recent bargaining, agreeing to fair pay increases, and addressing many of the PSRA's concerns with respect to non-economic items," PRO general manager Mark Geiger said in a statement Saturday. "This represented approximately a 25% overall increase over 2023 when comparing salary, retainers, game fees, and benefits plus the addition of business class travel for the MLS Cup Playoffs. The result of the membership vote is disappointing."

The union's vote -- which took place Thursday and Friday -- had 98 percent participation among members and resulted in almost 96 percent of voters rejecting the latest proposal.

"Feedback from our members indicates the failed ratification was driven by issues with the compensation and benefits PRO was offering, as well as a lack of improvements to travel, scheduling and other quality-of-life issues," Peter Manikowski, president and lead negotiator for PSRA, said in a statement Saturday.

Union membership voted on Jan. 22 to authorize a potential strike.

"PRO worked for months and addressed all the issues that were raised by PSRA's bargaining unit," Nelson Rodriguez, an MLS executive vice president, said in a statement on behalf of the league posted Saturday on X. "It is also unfortunate that the PSRA rejected PRO's offer for a mutual no strike-no lockout commitment, which would have allowed all match officials to continue working during ongoing negotiations."

MLS said the PRO's contingency plan will utilize "experienced professional match referees supported by veteran VAR (video replay) officials. We are confident in the comprehensive plan they have put in place."

The PRSA and its representatives expressed concern about the replacement referees.

"Their lack of familiarity and experience with MLS teams, players and specialized rules created a detriment for the quality of the matches," the PRSA said in a statement after the Jan. 22 vote, referencing the 2014 lockout, when MLS used replacement officials for the first two weeks of the season after a labor disagreement.

"We think replacement officials generally do not have the current experience and level of fitness required to do our jobs," Manikowski said in his statement Saturday. "The sport and everyone involved -- players, coaches and fans -- deserve referees who are the best in North America at knowing the MLS game and its current rules and applications."

--Field Level Media