Soccer-MLS season may start with replacement refs amid labor dispute

By Thomson Reuters Feb 17, 2024 | 12:37 PM

By Frank Pingue

(Reuters) – The Professional Referee Organization said on Saturday it has decided to lock out Major League Soccer referees ahead of next week’s start to the 2024 season after the Professional Soccer Referees Association rejected a proposed new labor pact.

The PRO will lock out referees effective 12:00 am. ET (0500 GMT) on Sunday and, barring a change, the 2024 MLS season opener on Wednesday featuring Argentine great Lionel Messi’s Inter Miami club will be officiated by replacement referees.

“The PSRA has rejected a no strike/no lockout proposal from PRO through the 2024 MLS Cup, which, along with their public strike authorization, has created significant risk as the 2024 season begins,” the PRO said in a news release.

“We are left with no choice but to institute a lockout and use qualified non-bargaining unit officials so that games can go ahead as scheduled.”

PRO last locked out MLS referees over labor talks in 2014, when replacement officials were used for the first two weeks of the season.

The PSRA said feedback from members indicated 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.

According to the PSRA, 97.8% of its membership participated in the vote, with 95.8% voting to reject ratification of the tentative agreement.

“The skyrocketing growth of MLS has significantly increased demands on officials mentally and physically, and as such has increased demands on both our professional and personal time,” said Peter Manikowski, president and lead negotiator for PSRA.

“Our members are asking not only for fair compensation at a time when the league is reporting record growth, but also for the ability to take care of themselves on the road and at home to continue officiating at the highest level that this sport demands.”

Manikowski also said replacement officials do not have the experience and fitness required to do the job properly and that players, coaches and fans deserve referees who best know the MLS game and its rules and applications.

According to MLS, the tentative agreement that was reached would have made PRO members among the highest paid soccer match officials in the world.

“PRO worked for months and addressed all the issues that were raised by PSRA’s bargaining unit,” MLS Executive Vice President of Sporting Product & Competition Nelson Rodriguez said in statement.

“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.”

Rodriguez said MLS are confident in the comprehensive plan PRO have put in place for the upcoming MLS season, which includes experienced professional match referees supported by veteran VAR officials.

(Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto, editing by Pritha Sarkar)