The 2014 MLS season is quickly approaching with Seattle Sounders opening against 2013 MLS Cup champions Sporting Kansas City on March 8th. The only thing standing in the way of these two teams kicking off MLS’ nineteenth season is referees. In a recent report from Washington Post writer Steve Goff, the Professional Referee Organization (PRO), the organization that assigns professional referees to matches in the United States and Canada, is still in negotiations with the Professional Soccer Referees Association (PSRA), a non-profit organization that aims to improve working conditions of professional referees in North America. The two sides have met over twenty times since last summer to agree to a new collective bargaining agreement. Peter Walton, the general manager of PRO said recently,
We have come to a number of tentative agreements in many areas. We are some distance apart on our economics, but I don’t think the slowness will impact the season….What is on the table is a fair deal. We stand above [the compensation level of other professional referees throughout the world].
PSRA lead negotiator Steve Taylor explained that referees need to negotiate a more fair deal since the PSRA did not negotiate the last contract and the baseline salary for referees is low. To put even more of a strain on negotiations, PSRA filed an unfair labor practice charge due to “regressive bargaining by withdrawing a number of tentative agreements without good cause”, with PSRA looking to file a second charge for alleged threats made to referees who participate in union activities.
PRO uses a pool of 76 referees, assistant referees and fourth officials who work MLS matches. Last year’s budget for referee salaries and match fees is estimated at $2.1 million. The specifics of the negotiations are private. However, based on the salary information of UEFA Champions League referees, it is easier to estimate how much an MLS referee is compensated per game.
It may not come as any surprise that compensation is standing in the way of a new collective bargaining deal, as MLS commissioner Don Garber revealed at the 2014 MLS SuperDraft that the league is losing between $75 and $100 million per year. Operating as cheaply as possible should be top priority from the league’s perspective, despite the reports that MLS clubs are stable and the league is continuing to expand to new markets.
MLS should still be cautious with its negotiations considering the prominence of match fixing that has been uncovered over the past few years. CONCACAF is no stranger to corruption as FIFA investigations resulted in suspensions for over twenty players from El Salvador for match fixing. Former CONCACAF executives Jack Warner and Chuck Blazer have also been accused of taking bribes and misallocating funds for personal gain in 2011. Last February, investigations revealed that hundreds of matches all over the world may have been fixed in a global betting scam organized in Singapore. Further investigations into match fixing have implicated players and match officials, resulting in serious suspension or lifetime bans from FIFA.
One way for MLS to ensure the league remains off of the list of leagues that have been plagued by match fixing is to appropriately compensate their referees and maintain a positive relationship with the PSRA. The integrity of MLS surely is worth the asking price of professional referees in North America. The league should also keep this idea in mind as negotiations with the players union will begin after the 2014 season when the player’s collective bargaining agreement will expires. Players will most likely look to increase minimum salary and therefore raise the average salary of players in the league. MLS must walk a thin line to ensure that referees and players are fairly compensated while also continuing to spend within their means in a crowded sports landscape.