NEW YORK -- Major League Soccer is prepared to start its season this weekend even if there isn't a labor deal with its referees and other on-field officials.
The Professional Soccer Referee Association was certified by the National Labor Relations Board last May to represent referees, assistant referees and fourth officials working MLS games. It has not reached an agreement with the Professional Referee Organization, which was created by the U.S. Soccer Federation and MLS in 2012 to manage game officials in U.S. and Canadian professional leagues.
The PSRA has filed a pair of unfair labor practice charges with the NLRB's New York office, accusing the PRO of bad-faith bargaining and making threats against PSRA members. PSRA members voted 64-1 last month to authorize an unfair labor practice strike.
"We will be opening up this weekend with referees, and we are absolutely in a position to have a contingency plan in the event that those discussions don't end positively," MLS Commissioner Don Garber said Tuesday. "We have so many things that we're gearing up for with our 2014 season. Nothing is going to stop us from having a strong opening and to continue to grow this league.”
PSRA chairman Steve Taylor said there are economic and non-economic issues.
"They have not made significant movement," he said of the PRO.
Answering questions from reporters and fans during a season kickoff session, Garber said increasing the league's television ratings is a priority. Viewers for national television broadcasts during the regular season dropped from an average of 180,000 viewers in 2012 to 170,000 last year, according to Nielsen Media Research.
MLS has been negotiating with ESPN and Fox to replace deals with ESPN and NBC that expire at the end of this season. Garber said while quality of play, attendance, soccer-specific stadiums have increased, "our national television ratings have not grown at the same level.”
"So we need to figure out why that's happening. Obviously, there's a lot more competition than there ever was. Viewers have more alternatives. We need not to fight that but accept it and address it," he said. "Our games have been scheduled all over the week. It's been difficult even if you work in the league office to know what time and what day a game is taking place. So our new agreements will be very, very, very focused in terms of a specific date and time.”
Garber said progress has slowed on obtaining a new stadium for New York City FC, which joins the league along with Orlando, Fla., in 2015 as MLS expands to 21 teams.
"It's tough to get stadium projects done in New York City, perhaps even a little more difficult now than it was maybe six months or a year ago," he said.
MLS said in July it plans to reach 24 teams by 2020, and a Miami team has been awarded to former Los Angeles Galaxy star David Beckham, with no year identified for it to start play. Garber briefly discussed the expansion possibilities of several cities:
Atlanta: "We're getting close. There are ongoing discussions. There's not a rush to finalize something there. ... That time is probably sooner as opposed to later.”
Austin, Texas, and San Antonio: "It's premature for both markets. ... Expanding in Texas is something that's likely going to happen. Where that happens, when that happens is still to be seen.”
Cleveland: "There haven't been any discussions of late. What I would say to folks that are living in Cincinnati, the folks that are living in Dayton, folks that are living Cleveland, support the Crew," a reference to the Columbus team.
Detroit: "There haven't been any discussions. Not sure it's on the short list, but you never know.”
Minneapolis: "On the short list. Lots of interest there.”
North Carolina: "It is a hotbed for soccer. ... We'll monitor it. ... I'm not sure Carolina is coming any time soon.”
He also mentioned Sacramento as an expansion possibility.