MLS referee lockout ends; new CBA runs to January 2031

The monthlong lockout of MLS referees has ended, with the Professional Soccer Referees Association (PSRA) voting to ratify a new collective bargaining agreement with the Professional Referee Organization (PRO) late on Monday night that will run through January 2031.

The Athletic was the first to report the CBA ratification, and sources confirmed it to ESPN. PRO’s senior match officials will return to MLS action for matchday seven, which begins on March 30.

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“We thank the hundreds of officials in the U.S. and Canada who stood in solidarity with us showing their strength and professionalism,” the PSRA said in a statement on Tuesday.

“Standing strong with each other, we have been buoyed by the support of players, fans, supporters clubs and other unionized workgroups during our employer-imposed lockout. Together, we have won much-needed improvements while demonstrating the value of having the best referees in Major League Soccer on the pitch.”

Multiple sources with knowledge of the vote told ESPN that 93 of 97 eligible voters took part, with 72 voting “yes,” which amounts to a 77.4% approval rate.

Mark Geiger, PRO’s general manager, said: “We look forward to welcoming our senior match officials back this upcoming match round. It has been a difficult time for everyone as we worked to reach an agreement.

“This seven-year term provides enhanced pay and benefits for all officials and the stability that will support the growth of the professional game in the United States and Canada.

“On behalf of PRO, I would like to thank the PSRA negotiating team and the federal mediator for their commitment to finding a mutually agreeable conclusion to these negotiations and their hard work in finalizing the terms.”

According to a source with knowledge of the deal, the seven-year length of the new CBA was a potential sticking point for union membership, who didn’t want one CBA to continue through two World Cup cycles.

Working out a new CBA provides an opportunity to renegotiate pay, and a longer-term deal delays a potential increase from occurring. But the deal was ultimately ratified, and the source added that although the CBA will provide retroactive pay for January and part of February, there will be no retroactive pay for the period of the lockout.

The previous CBA expired on Jan. 15. A week later, the PSRA membership gave its leadership the authority to authorize a potential strike.

The two sides twice agreed to extend the terms of the old CBA during negotiations, and with federal mediators facilitating talks, a tentative agreement was reached on Feb. 14.

At that point, the thought was that a work stoppage would be averted, but the union membership voted overwhelmingly against ratification — 95.8% voted “no” — because the monetary increases and changes to travel benefits were, in their view, insufficient.

Once PRO’s offer of a no strike/no lockout provision was rejected by the PSRA — which called the offer a “poison pill” — PRO responded by locking out the PSRA referees on Feb. 17 and used replacement referees for the first month of the season. The decision to lock out the union referees marked the second time over three CBA negotiations that replacement referees were used. PRO is funded in part by MLS.

The talks soon became more contentious, as both sides filed unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board.

MLS attempted to put a positive spin on the replacement referees’ performances, with Nelson Rodríguez, the MLS EVP of sporting product and competition, telling MLS owners in a memo that referee performance “as evidenced by our Key Match Indicators, aligns with the professional standards observed in the past seasons, maintaining consistency in officiating quality.”

But the data suggested otherwise. Through 70 games this season, there were 35 VAR interventions, a rate that was 51% higher than what was recorded during the 2023 season.

There was also an embarrassing episode in which a referee scheduled to work the match between Inter Miami and Orlando City SC on March 2 had to be replaced when photos emerged on social media of him wearing a Miami jersey.

Earlier this month, PSRA president Peter Manikowski told ESPN that PRO was “not willing to talk about solutions and only wanting to inflict pain upon the members who exercise their legal right to vote no on a collective bargaining agreement that didn’t meet their family and their own needs.”

Ultimately, the deal got done, with a second tentative agreement approved last Friday.

The source added that the CBA adds “several million” in wages to what was contained in the first tentative agreement for referees, assistant referees, VAR officials and assistant VAR officials.

The increases — for base pay and for match fees — vary depending on the level of a referee’s experience, but The Athletic reported that probationary referees will receive a 68% increase in pay, while probationary assistants will receive an 88% increase.

The source told ESPN that while the issue of travel benefits did improve overall — The Athletic reported small gains in terms of scheduling flights and first-class travel on Decision Day — there was no change from what was in the first tentative agreement.

“Major League Soccer has some of the best match officials in the world, and PRO’s new CBA with PSRA recognizes that by committing substantial resources to the referee program — an investment that ranks among the highest for any global soccer league,” Rodríguez said of the new CBA. “We’re pleased this agreement provides PRO with a strong, long-term partnership to continue to develop and train the referees to make our officiating even better.”