‘This is a Foul’: Refs’ Union Condemns ‘Lockout’ as PRO ‘Bars’ Major League Soccer Refs from Working Matches

‘This is a Foul’: Refs’ Union Condemns ‘Lockout’ as PRO ‘Bars’ Major League Soccer Refs from Working Matches

The Professional Soccer Referees Association (PSRA), the certified labor union representing officials working Major League Soccer (MLS) matches, has condemned the lockout imposed by MLS and its referee employment organization, the Professional Referee Organization (PRO). “This leaves players, teams and fans without the top professional officials in the league as the 2024 MLS season kicks off,” according to the PRSA.

“This is their weak attempt to apply economic pressure, and MLS is sacrificing the quality of the game to do that,” Peter Manikowski, president and lead negotiator for PSRA, said. “We call it like it is – and this is a foul.”

The “lockout” was implemented by MLS and PRO on February 18, after notification that PSRA members “had exercised their rights and rejected a deal that would leave them without improvements officials needed to see in compensation and benefits, travel, scheduling and other quality-of-life issues that referees struggle with as demands of the sport grow.”

PSRA has also alleged “unfair labor practices during bargaining on the part of PRO, practices that create an unfair playing field in reaching a contract that fairly rewards officials for their hard work and dedication to the sport of soccer.” PSRA announced that its members “had overwhelmingly rejected a tentative agreement, with 95.8 percent voting ‘NO’ as to whether to ratify PRO’s proposed tentative agreement.”

In a release, PSRA suggested it has “indicated its intention to continue bargaining in good faith, while MLS and PRO’s response was a lockout, denying employment to the top officials in the league. PSRA rejected an eleventh-hour no-strike/no-lockout deal for the entire 2024 season proposed by PRO that would have also: (1) frozen referees’ wages at levels negotiated in 2019; (2) rolled back job security provisions; and (3) no additional consideration from MLS or PRO for increased workload and travel.

Additionally, MLS and PRO have chosen to mischaracterize the tentative agreement publicly, utilizing percentages rather than providing the necessary context, including:

  • The highest pay increases would have benefited few officials, not the whole membership. Averages are deceiving when workers are paid so little. For example, some officials are paid $2,000 for off-field work commitments. Increasing these 100% to $4,000 does not capture the increases in the workload and does not remotely keep up with the growth around them. Meanwhile, in the last 5 years, all referees have endured an additional 10% more days on the road.
  • When divided by team, the increase in wage costs in the rejected agreement would have been less than $40,000 per team in the first year of the agreement. This amounts to MLS/PRO putting less than $1M total into new wages in the first year for the workgroup of approximately 100 officials.
  • During negotiations, PRO rejected every comparator to referees across the world, instead comparing the referees to camera operators in terms of their value to the game. Meanwhile, now MLS is saying their offer is “among the highest in the world.” Contrasted with the referees of Germany, who are paid approximately 100,000 Euro base per season and 5,000 Euro per match, MLS/PRO’s offer was not remotely close to those kinds of wages.
  • MLS/PRO’s offer would have kept travel benefits for the 490+ regular season matches each year mostly unchanged from 5 years ago. PRO’s touted “improvement” would cover less than 4.5% of matches of the entire season.
  • MLS/PRO’s offer did not provide a proper health care plan or cost-effective benefits to 70 of the officials, as compared to benefits offered by serious employers to professional employees – especially those who live, train and work as athletes.

“All this is amid MLS’s massive growth in revenues from the Apple TV agreement, substantial increases in player wages, increases in the number of matches and expansion to new markets.”

“Rather than taking care of some very basic needs that officials have, MLS and PRO are willing to hurt the quality of the game. That should alarm every player, coach and fan, and it’s devastating to our officials, who have dedicated their entire lives – mind, body and extensive experience – to this game,” Manikowski said. “We stand for the game.”