Work stoppage looms as NFL talks approach midnight deadline

Football fans faced a day of uncertainty Thursday as negotiations between NFL owners and the players union approached a midnight deadline on a new collective bargaining agreement. A range of scenarios were possible in the final hours of talks, with the most likely outcome being the one fans dislike the most. Without a last-minute agreement or an extension of the deadline, the NFL Players Association is expected to decertify on Thursday afternoon -- meaning it would stop being the collective bargaining agent for the players. By decertifying, the union would clear the way for the players to file an antitrust lawsuit if the owners lock out the players as soon as Friday, after the current contract expires. All of that would mean the first NFL work stoppage since 1987 and the likelihood of months of labor and legal maneuvering for football fans already confused about how a $9 billion industry lacks enough money to satisfy everyone. Even if there is a lockout, the NFL draft would proceed as scheduled on April 28-30, the league says. All other regular off-season activity would cease, threatening to delay or cancel the start of the 2011 season now scheduled for September 8. The federally mediated negotiations in northern Virginia, outside Washington, D.C., focus on how to cut up the NFL revenue pie. Currently, the owners take about $1 billion off the top of league revenue, and the players get 60 percent of the rest. For a new contract, the owners want to double their take off the top to $2 billion, with the players continuing to get 60 percent of the rest. The NFL generated $9.3 billion in revenue in 2010. Other issues include a proposal by the owners to increase the regular season schedule to 18 games from the current 16. The overall number of games per season, including exhibition games, would remain at the current 20. The players' union questions why the owners should get additional money up front and challenges the league's 32 teams to fully open their financial records. The owners, who say they are not legally obligated to provide full financial disclosure, argue they are looking out for the long-term stability of the franchises and the league. If there is a lockout, players won't get their salaries or bonuses, and if the shutdown forces the league to cancel games next season, the NFL estimates a loss of $400 million in revenue each week. Another possible scenario from the talks would have federal mediator George Cohen declare an impasse that would automatically extend the rules of the expiring collective bargaining agreement. Such an impasse can only occur if neither side takes steps to halt the negotiations, such as the union decertifying or the owners declaring a lock-out.

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