On Sunday millions of people around the world will tune in to watch the Pittsburgh Steelers play the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XLV. But could this be the last National Football League game for some time?
The current labor contract between the NFL and the NFL Players Association, the players' union, expires March 4. Unless a new agreement is reached, the league could be headed for a work stoppage.
That means no spring practice, no free agency deals and, potentially, no 2011 season.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said repeatedly in Dallas Friday that the owners and league are committed to reaching an agreement before the deadline.
"I think that's only going to happen when there's intense negotiations from your union and the owners," he said. "This is the window of opportunity to get this done right."
The standoff between the league, team owners and players centers on two key issues. First, there's revenue sharing. NFL players currently receive 60 percent of the league's $9 billion in annual revenue, but team owners say that's unsustainable, given the economic downturn. They want to reduce the players' share by 9 percent to 18 percent.
Secon, there's the schedule. The league wants to add two more regular season games, for a total of 18. Players say that would increase their risk of injury, and they deserve compensation.
Goodell said Friday that there are "no deal breakers," but that the status quo is "not acceptable."
On Saturday, Goodell and officials from the NFL Players' Association will sit down for the first formal negotiating session since November. The NFL commissioner met with the head of the players union, DeMaurice Smith, in New York Monday.
Goodell said today that the labor problem will get resolved at the negotiating table -- not through public relations, litigation or congressional strategies. "This is about a negotiation," he said.
In an unusual moment, Cincinnati Bengals receiver Chad Ochocinco asked Goodell the question he said all his fellow players wanted to have answered: "How far away are we from realistically getting a labor deal done?"
NFL Players Present Case to Congress
Goodell would not commit to a timeline, but said "in the next few weeks."
The NFL Players' union said fans have been asking the same question -- and worried whether there would be football next year. Last month, George Atallah, the NFLPA's assistant executive director for external affairs, told ABC News that "unfortunately, we can't guarantee that."
Typically, when NFL players come to Washington, it's to celebrate a championship.
Last month, they came to present their case to members of Congress.
Players want Congress to use its leverage over the league -- leverage that they say comes from an anti-trust exemption given to the NFL years ago to negotiate television contracts and share revenues. So far, members have shown little indication of intervening, and players insist they were not expecting them to.
"At this point, we're not trying to get anybody to step in to interfere. We just want to inform members of Congress where we stand," said Pete Kendall, a former offensive lineman and now a permanent representative on the union's negotiating committee.
"We're not looking for Congress to step in and do anything per se," said Indianapolis Colts center Jeff Saturday. "We're just looking to get people in our communities to understand what our cause is."
Goodell has emphasized in recent weeks that the league and owners understand that a work stoppage would hurt the clubs, players, the game and its fans, acknowledging Friday that it would also hurt corporate sponsors.
"If we are unsuccessful [in negotiations], uncertainty will continue," he said. "That uncertainty will lead to a reduction in revenue, and when that revenue decreases, there is less for us to share," he said, adding that that would make it harder to reach an agreement.
Goodell has pledged to reduce his salary to $1 if there is a work stoppage.
Lockout to Hurt Local Economies
In meetings last month with members of Congress, including Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and such former NFL players as Reps. Heath Shuler, D-N.C., and Jon Runyan, R-N.J., the NFL players focused on how a lockout and canceled season could hurt their communities.
"This Congress is concerned about jobs, jobs and jobs," Kendall said. "A lockout will affect the local economy, not just those who attend the games but those who provide services at the games.
"We're not talking about penalizing players only -- this is going to hurt your parking lot attendants, your restaurants, your hotels. Everybody in your city hurts when this happens."
But the NFL insists the changes it's pushing are necessary for the league's long-term financial health. "This is about the future of our game," Goodell said in January. "There are things that need to be addressed, and we need to address those responsible, so that everybody can win."
This week the NFLPA produced an ad that described what it would be like if there were no NFL season next year. The ad, titled "Let Us Play," shows empty stadiums, empty fields and NFL players and fans imploring the league to keep the season intact.
The union intended to air it once on television, during a college football all-star game sponsored by the NFLPA on CBS College Sports network Saturday.
A spokesman for the NFLPA, however, said CBS told them it rejected the ad because the content related to the collective bargaining agreement and an ongoing legal issue.
Labor disputes are not the sole domain of football. The 2004-2005 National Hockey League season was canceled because of a lockout, and the National Basketball Association had a six-month work stoppage in 1998. When Major League Baseball players went on strike in August 1994, the playoffs and the World Series were canceled.
Players Insist They Want to Work
But unlike the baseball strike, the NFL players insist they want to work -- and it's the owners who could prevent them from doing so.
"The players deadline is March 4," the NFLPA's Atallah said last month. "That is critical, because to them, to a group of employees that need to go work out at their facilities [and] get physical treatment for their illness, that is the critical date for them.
"Once the contract expires," Atallah said, "effectively, players are not allowed to engage with employers. They can't work out. They can't go meet with their coaching staffs."