MLS referee lockout over with new CBA agreed to 2030 – sources

The month-long lockout of MLS referees has ended, with sources confirming to ESPN that the Professional Soccer Referees Association (PSRA) voted to ratify a new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) with the Professional Referee Organization (PRO) late on Monday night.

The Athletic was the first to report the CBA ratification.

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Neither the PSRA nor PRO responded to requests for comment. The sources that spoke to ESPN asked for anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly about the deal and its ratification.

One source with knowledge of the vote told ESPN that 93 of 97 eligible voters took part in the vote, with 72 voting “yes,” which amounts to a 77.4% approval rate. The expectation is that the PSRA referees will return to work this weekend.

According to a source with knowledge of the deal, the new CBA is set to last seven years, through the end of 2030 season. This was a potential sticking point for union membership, who didn’t want the CBA to last through two World Cup cycles.

A new CBA is usually accompanied by a significant bump in pay, and a longer-term deal delays that increase from occurring. But the deal was ultimately ratified, and the source added that while the CBA will provide retroactive pay for the months of 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 different 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 Practices with the National Labor Relations Board.

MLS attempted to put a positive spin on the replacement referees’ performances, with MLS EVP of Sporting Product & Competition Nelson Rodriguez 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 both base pay and 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.