NEW YORK — So long, replacement refs. The NFL's regular crews will be back on the field starting Thursday night.
After two days of marathon negotiations — and mounting frustration among coaches, players and fans — the NFL and the referees' union announced at midnight Thursday that a tentative agreement had been reached to end a lockout that began in June.
Commissioner Roger Goodell, who was at the bargaining table Tuesday and Wednesday, said the regular officials would work the Browns-Ravens game at Baltimore tonight.
"Welcome back REFS," Buffalo Bills running back C.J. Spiller tweeted shortly after the news broke.
The replacements worked the first three weeks of games, triggering a wave of outrage that threatened to disrupt the rest of the season. After a missed call cost the Green Bay Packers a win on a chaotic final play at Seattle on Monday night, the two sides really got serious.
"We are glad to be getting back on the field for this week's games," referees' union president Scott Green said.
The tentative eight-year deal is the longest involving on-field officials in NHL history and was reached with the assistance of two federal mediators. It must be ratified by 51 percent of the union's 121 members, who plan to vote Friday and Saturday in Dallas.
The agreement hinged on working out salary, pension and retirement benefits for the officials, who are part-time employees of the league. Tentatively, it calls for their salaries to increase from an average of $149,000 a year in 2011 to $173,000 in 2013, rising to $205,000 by 2019.
Under the proposal, the current defined benefit pension plan will remain in place for current officials through the 2016 season or until the official earns 20 years' service. The defined benefit plan will then be frozen.
Retirement benefits will be provided for new hires, and for all officials beginning in 2017, through a defined contribution arrangement. The annual league contribution made on behalf of each game official will begin with an average of more than $18,000 per official and increase to more than $23,000 per official in 2019.