Major League SoccerThe full-time refereeing crew will return to the field this weekend after agreeing to a new, seven-year collective bargaining agreement with the Professional Referees Organization (PRO), the MLS-funded entity that administers professional refereeing in North America.

Talks between the PRO and the Professional Soccer Referees Association (PSRA, the labor union representing professional referees in the United States) broke down earlier this year, and in mid-February, the PRO locked out its officials. MLS began its season with replacement referees as the two sides continued to work towards an agreement. The federally mediated talks were sometimes volatile, with both sides publicly accusing each other of unfair practices and talking down the media.

Eventually, the two sides reached an agreement on a new CBA, which features significant pay increases — 28% in the first year alone — for MLS officials. In the days following the deal, figures from both sides of the deal had plenty to say about it.

Terms and duration of the agreement

Sources connected to the league and the club’s ownership groups seemed mostly positive about the deal. A source briefed on the negotiations said the owners are particularly happy about its length, and in particular noted that the last two years, which take place after the 2026 World Cup, feature only modest salaries for officials.

That view is borne out by a memo sent by MLS senior vice president of sports competition Nelson Rodriguez to team owners after the deal was signed Tuesday morning. In his memorandum, which he received and verified athletic, Rodriguez suggested that the CBA, in the long run, “will be neutral, if not more favorable, over that seven-year period.”

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Rodriguez noted that while the new agreement represents a 28 percent overall increase for match officials from 2023, “when comparing salaries, game fees, benefits and travel enhancements, (the CBA contains) an average increase in compensation of about 4.35% in the following six years of the agreement.”

Rodriguez went on to characterize the gains made by PSRA in the final version of the agreement as a “small increase” from the deal that PSRA’s membership collapsed in February.

According to PSRA data, the final CBA figures agreed to represent an increase of $1.06 million over five years from the first tentative agreement. Over the full seven years of the deal, that amount increases to $2.7 million.

On the other hand, the seven-year term proved to be the biggest disappointment in terms of agreement among the PSRA judges contacted by Athletics. Many such officials suggested they felt the PSRA would be in a less desirable negotiating position for the next CBA, with talks coming years after at least one and possibly two World Cups, depending on whether the U.S. wins her bid to host Women’s World. Cup in 2027.

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However, most respondents were largely positive about the new deal, impressed by a deal that sees an immediate and significant increase in compensation.

“If you look at the salary for senior referees (in the centre), you can start planning a future with that money,” said one PSRA member, who was granted anonymity to protect their relationship in the game. “We have continuous growth that we can rely on, we have match guarantees. All of this means that for the first time, you can do some serious financial planning around your salary. To me, you can’t underestimate the value of that.”

The replacement referees eventually drew the ire of players and coaches (Michael Janosz/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

Deadline for negotiations

Rodriguez and MLS commissioner Don Garber repeatedly shared the league’s belief that the replacement referees the PRO hired during the lockout were “of a professional standard” and at a similar level to the PRO’s full-time players.

Garber himself suggested that the league’s players and coaches felt the same way, adding that the league had done market research showing that the work stoppage mattered little to its fans and would not affect the long-term perception of the league itself.

“There is no customer feedback,” Garber said Athletics at a round table in March. “Not only do we not see that through the research we do, but we have to look at where we are. The replacement officials are – not by our standards, but by PRO standards – are of a pro (professional) standard.

Garber’s suggestions drew the ire of a contingent of MLS players, fans and coaches, some of whom spoke out publicly after each of their games was marred by what they perceived as a blown call. The Major League Soccer Players Association (MLSPA) went a step further and issued a public statement suggesting that Garber’s comments were “grossly inaccurate” and that the replacement umpires were poorly trained, inexperienced and “not were almost at the level”. that an MLS-level league deserves.”

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Garber and Rodriguez’s view is also not universally shared among the team’s ownership groups.

“The quality of the replacement referees was an embarrassment at times,” said one MLS club stakeholder, who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect their relationship. “Some of the missed and failed calls were really hard to deal with. I have no idea what they were talking about when it comes to referees being up to (professional) standards. They clearly weren’t. It was strange to read it.”

Every referee he spoke to Athletics expressed dissatisfaction with the trend of the negotiations as they unfolded. Earlier this month PRO, represented in negotiations by New York-based law firm Proskauer Rose, took the step to offer a take-it-or-leave-it mandate, suggesting that if PSRA’s membership did not accept the offer their presented. Start negotiating a deal with “less favorable terms”.

Proskauer Rose has earned a reputation for playing hardball in these types of negotiations, advising NBA, NHL AND NFL in the respective labor interruptions over the past three decades. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and former NBA commissioner David Stern were both former Proskauer lawyers, and the firm represented MLS when it won a landmark antitrust lawsuit in 2000, a decision that solidified the league’s entire business model with one economic entity. He also represented MLS during the 2014 referee lockout.

The PSRA, responding to Garber’s comments earlier this month, characterized the league and PRO’s handling of negotiations as involving “anti-union tactics,” a view echoed by numerous judges among the PSRA membership.

“Actually, the league kicked us out,” said one. “I’m not at all surprised they played dirty here – it’s been their MO in every labor negotiation they’ve ever had with players or anyone else. I’m very, very curious to see how ugly their next negotiation with the MLSPA will get.”

The most recent CBA between MLS players and the league was agreed upon in early 2020 and runs through January 2028.

“There’s strength in our union,” said another judge, “but financially, there’s only so long a hiatus that either of us was equipped to deal with.”

The usual lineup of MLS officials will return this weekend (Bill Barrett/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

Comparison with the salary of judges around the world

Earlier this month, Garber also suggested that the tentative February deal that PSRA’s membership had rejected would make its membership “among the highest paid officials in the world.”

“Think about it — third (highest paid) or whatever the number is,” Garber said. “I think we can all agree that our players are not among the highest paid in the world. We have supported the increase in officials because there was a need. We are building again, with energy and resources, the growth of a whole new ecosystem of professional referees who are now on the field with world-class players.”

Data on the compensation of judges across the globe is not publicly available, but Athletics the report, along with data compiled by PSRA, casts the agreement reached between PSRA and PRO in a favorable light. At the very least, MLS referee salaries are comparable to the world’s top leagues based on pure compensation, although officials in Spain and England tend to earn more.

However, officials in those leagues also have a robust benefits package that includes a substantial retirement payout, something missing from PSRA’s pact with PRO. For example, a senior MLS referee with more than a decade of experience is only eligible for six months of severance pay.

Referees in the German and Italian Bundesliga Series A are also well compensated, paid a match fee nearly four times that of an MLS referee (though they receive a lower base salary).

“I think most (owners) across the league think referees are compensated enough right now,” said one MLS club stakeholder, who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect their relationship. “But if we pay a salary that is globally competitive, we want a better official. I think that’s the general feeling. The referees should be better. There are some owners who think the league is giving these guys too much money, but even those guys will probably be fine with it if the quality improves.”

The math gets trickier, though, when you start thinking about other factors—cost of living, inflation, and the like.

“On paper, our deal looks great,” said one PSRA member, “but it’s cheaper to exist in some countries than others — that’s true even inside the US, let alone abroad.”

(Photo: Jeremy Olson/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

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