MLS referees picket in Dallas as the season starts with a lockout

Dallas became an unlikely epicenter on Wednesday for the standoff between the Professional Referee Organization and the match officials’ union, the Professional Soccer Referees Association. What was due to be a training session for America’s top soccer officials became a picket line ahead of the opening weekend of the 2024 MLS season.

The existing collective bargaining agreement between the PSRA and PRO – the MLS-funded body that assigns officials for games in MLS, NWSL, USL Championship and League One, and MLS NEXT Pro – expired on January 15. A tentative agreement was reached between PRO and PSRA negotiators, but a February 17 vote of membership rejected the deal with a massive 95.8% majority.

MLS referee Joe Dickerson holds yellow and red cards at a picket in Dallas (Dan Crooke)
MLS referee Joe Dickerson holds yellow and red cards at a picket in Dallas (Dan Crooke)

2022 MLS All-Star Game referee Joe Dickerson didn’t see the result of the vote as a divide between PSRA membership and negotiators.

“The way I understand it is that the bargaining team had reached an impasse where they [PRO] were telling us they were out of money,” said Dickerson. “[PRO negotiators] didn’t necessarily believe that the union was as strongly a ‘no’ on that contract as we would be.”

The man in the middle for each of FC Dallas’ last two playoff exits surmised that the tentative agreement was the best deal that PSRA could negotiate at that moment rather than one they felt their members should accept.

In the lead-up to the vote, PRO had thrown around some impressive sounding points, highlighted by up to a 104% increase in pay for assistant referees. Those were quickly rebutted by PSRA, stating that some officials received as little as $3,100 in guaranteed pay in 2023 where the larger increases would apply, while other officials would effectively receive as little as a 2% increase in total pay.

The Hilton Dallas Lincoln Centre in North Dallas is a regular venue for seminars and training for both American officials and wider Concacaf training events. The preseason meeting intended for the assembled officials including PSRA Secretary Chris Penso and 2022 FIFA World Cup fourth official Ismail Elfath was instead used to train replacement officials.

Union members demonstrated at both the Dallas training venue and the office space PRO uses at MLS headquarters in New York City on Wednesday.

Two-time MLS Cup referee, Allen Chapman, spoke of the disrespect behind the proposed increases that largely neglected senior officials.

“The lack of respect that they showed, especially to veterans in the referee group was very disappointing,” said Chapman. “When they have a big match or a big derby, they know we’re good referees that can handle that for them. To see the 4% increase that they offered us on top of inflation was very disappointing.”

Chapman went through the last lockout in 2014 when replacement officials took charge of the first two weeks of the MLS season. The veteran of over 250 regular and postseason MLS games sees growth in the union and its members from the negotiations of a decade ago.

“We’re better prepared financially,” said Chapman. “As a union, solidarity. We would have never pulled something off like this [motioning to the assembled PSRA members demonstrating] back in 2014. It was only the second year [of PRO] so it was a little scary because of the unknown. Now, I think we understand that with some patience, hopefully, we can get a fair deal and we can move forward. Looking back on 2014 it was just so quick.”

The two weeks of replacement officials in 2014 largely went without incident. The only high-profile mistake was a Luke Mulholland goal for Real Salt Lake against LA Galaxy, which was incorrectly ruled offside when the former RSL forward was several yards behind the ball and two Galaxy defenders. The assistant referee was Jose da Silva, who is now a FIFA panel AR and a regular on MLS sidelines.

This small communal nature of top-level soccer officials in North America sees a greater risk of turning personal compared to most industrial action, but Dickerson and Chapman both felt that Mark Geiger – General Manager of PRO and long-time MLS official – is simply working within the framework provided to him by the league itself.

At the heart of the matter, the word professional is in the name of both organizations and the conditions to be professional are what PSRA members talk of.

Up to 70% of the union’s 260 members would not be afforded health insurance under the rejected deal.

First-class travel for the postseason would be in the form of an upgrade, leaving officials to still plan their travel with as little as two days’ notice. That still only accounts for what the union described as 4.5% of the season.

Dickerson and Chapman both spoke about what goes into officiating in the United States’ top flight beyond what we see on game day. Video analysis of the prior performance, several hours of daily physical training, and studying film of the teams that they will officiate to determine play styles and tendencies. The logistics of getting across the country. For some that has to include another job to make being a professional referee viable.

A 2022 report by AS stated that Chapman was among PRO’s top earners that year. For context specific to refereeing, the base salary for a new Premier League referee is around $88,500 with an additional $1,850 match fee. Even that number would still leave officials a long way short of their counterparts in any of the traditional four American sports.

As DFW celebrated the growth of soccer just a fortnight ago with the announcement that AT&T Stadium would host nine games for the 2026 FIFA World Cup, it also serves as a reminder of growth to come as people who have reached the top levels of the sport were left to congregate on a sunny winter day garnering support from other unions and organizations – including both the MLS Players’ Association and Independent Supporters Council – and passing motorists on I-635 in their pursuit for what they deem to be fair pay and fair working conditions.

The PRO website states that replacement officials for MLS fixtures including FC Dallas’ opening game against San Jose will not be announced until the day of the game.

1 Comment

  1. I really don’t take a side in this but it comes across as anther example of MLS cheapness
    Given the relatively low salary ranges for match officials and their limited numbers increasing their pay by 10% would seem to be relatively small expense compared to league revenues. Probably less than 2 million in aggregate which means about 70k per club. Isn’t it worth that much to get the best quality refs you can realistically get?

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