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MLS will open its season this week with replacement referees after labor talks falter

Alistair Johnston of Nashville SC is issued a yellow card during the second half of a match against FC Cincinnati at Nissan Stadium on April 17, 2021 in Nashville.
Brett Carlsen
Getty Images
Alistair Johnston of Nashville SC is issued a yellow card during the second half of a match against FC Cincinnati at Nissan Stadium on April 17, 2021 in Nashville.

Major League Soccer will kick off its season this week with replacement referees, after unionized match officials rejected a contract offer they said fell "short of expectations."

On Saturday, nearly 96% of Professional Soccer Referees Association members voted against a bargaining agreement put forward by the Professional Referee Organization, which employs referees for MLS and other professional soccer leagues.

After the vote, the PRO announced it would lock out unionized match officials and instead begin the regular season with non-unionized replacement referees. The MLS season startsthis Wednesday at 8 p.m. with soccer legend Lionel Messi's Inter Miami facing off against Real Salt Lake.

"The result of the membership vote is disappointing," PRO general manager Mark Geiger said in a statement. "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."

The PRO said the tentative five-year contract offer that it proposed during negotiations would have increased overall compensation by approximately 25% by upping salaries, retainers, game fees and other benefits, including business class travel for certain events.

But the referees' union suggested the offer didn't go far enough to support officials who are expected to oversee matches in a fast-paced game that has grown increasingly popular in the U.S. Attendance at MLS games has been ballooning in recent years, helped along last summer by Messi's signing with Inter Miami.

"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," union president and lead negotiator Peter Manikowski said in a statement.

"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," he added.

Members had issues with the compensation and benefits included in the contract offer, and said it failed to adequately address certain quality-of-life issues, such as travel and scheduling, Manikowski said.

A previous contract covering MLS referees expired on January 15.

The lockout comes less than a month after the union voted to authorize a potential strike during the ongoing negotiations, The Athletic reported.

Both groups said Saturday that they still hoped to reach an agreement.

Major League Soccer executive vice president Nelson Rodríguez said in a statement that the union vote was "extremely disappointing" and that the league supported the plan to use replacement refs.

"PRO has informed us of its contingency plan for the upcoming MLS season, which includes utilizing experienced professional match referees supported by veteran [Video Assistant Referee] officials," Rodríguez said. "We are confident in the comprehensive plan they have put in place."

But union president Manikowski said back-up match officials "generally do not have the current experience and level of fitness required to do our jobs."

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