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(Reuters) - To the relief of fans, players and owners, the National Football League's (NFL) regular referees will return to work on Thursday after a deal was struck to end a damaging months-long lockout of unionized game officials.
The storm of criticism following a botched call that handed the Seattle Seahawks a victory at the expense of the Green Bay Packers on Monday added urgency to talks between the league and NFL Referees Association (NFLRA) and a new eight-year deal was reached just before midnight on Wednesday.
"It's great news for everyone - players, fans, sponsors and the league," Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shad Khan told Reuters on Thursday. "We look forward to seeing NFL officials back in uniform at EverBank Field on Sunday and well beyond."
The lockout had been in place since June when talks on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) broke down, forcing the NFL to use poorly qualified replacement referees for the pre-season and opening three weeks of the regular season.
Significantly, NFL team owners only became directly involved in talks on Tuesday after the touchdown call in Seattle prompted a nationwide reaction with massive media interest, fan protests and even encouragement from President Barack Obama for the two sides to resolve their differences swiftly.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell apologized to fans for the three weeks of substandard officiating.
"We are sorry to have to put our fans through that, but in the short term it's something you have to do to make sure you get the right type of agreement for the long term," he told reporters on a conference call. "We weren't going to shut down football. It is painful in the process."
Goodell rejected the suggestion that the Monday incident in primetime was a "tipping point" but did acknowledge that it had played a role in getting the deal done.
"It might have pushed the parties further along, but we were in intense negotiations," he said.
The recognizable face of Gene Steratore, in his 10th season as an NFL referee, will be in charge of Thursday's primetime game between the host Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns, while replacement refs return to the lower divisions of college, high school and semi-pro football.
The new CBA must still be ratified on Friday by the union membership but NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell lifted the lockout prior to that vote in order to avoid another game with the heavily criticized replacements in charge.
The union won some concessions from the NFL on the changes to the pension wanted by the league while agreeing to the introduction of some full-time referees and a development pool of future refs.
Compensation for game officials will increase from an average of $149,000 a year in 2011 to $173,000 in 2013, rising to $205,000 by 2019, the NFL said.
While the agreed way to grandfather in the pension may leave some of the referees unsatisfied, the current system will be kept in place for five years before a switchover to a 401(k), the terms were widely viewed as favorable for the union.
"The owners appear to have grossly overestimated their bargaining power and underestimated the bargaining power of the referees," said Richard Sheehan, a University of Notre Dame finance professor who specializes in the economics of sports.
"Referees had the option, at least in the short-term, of not agreeing with whatever the NFL powers demanded,"
"The owners' arrogance and hubris led them to make a large wager that the referees' job was so easy that they could hire replacements and no one would notice. Unfortunately, fans noticed. If there was any doubt that the owners made an incredibly misinformed bet, the doubt was removed Monday night."
The NFL Players Association, who were in a lockout situation with the league last year, welcomed the end of the conflict.
"Our workplace is safer with the return of our professional referees," the NFLPA said in a statement. "We welcome our fellow union members back on our field."
New York Giants linebacker Michael Boley said the return of the regular refs was essential for the game.
"The pressure on the replacement refs was becoming too much for them and all of the missed and blown calls were messing with the integrity of the game," he told the NFL Network.
"I'm not saying the real refs will get every call right but I think they will do a better job. Good to have them back."
Reporting by Simon Evans in Miami; Editing by Frank Pingue