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NFL’s ’11 season lurches deeper into uncertainty

New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft talked with NFL spokesman Greg Aiello yesterday in Chantilly, Va. Any work stoppage would be bad for owners and players, Kraft says. New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft talked with NFL spokesman Greg Aiello yesterday in Chantilly, Va. Any work stoppage would be bad for owners and players, Kraft says. (Luis M. Alvarez/ Associated Press)
By Greg A. Bedard
Globe Staff / March 3, 2011

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CHANTILLY, Va. — The National Football League has never been more popular.

It has billion-dollar television deals. Packed stadiums across the land. And each week brings another record for television ratings.

But come September, NFL stadiums could be empty.

At midnight tonight, the collective bargaining agreement between the league and the NFL Players Association will expire.

If there is no new agreement forged between the sides before then — and a league source said yesterday not much progress has been made, adding, “There’s a long ways to go’’ — the field of play will be likey to shift from the negotiating room to the courtroom.

Once that happens, the reality is that the 2011 NFL season — or at least a portion of it — is very much in danger.

Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who participated in negotiations before a federal mediator before heading back to Boston last night, has said any work stoppage would be a pox on the owners and players.

“People don’t want to hear about our squabbling, and it’s criminal if we don’t get a deal done,’’ Kraft said at last month’s Super Bowl. “I’ve never seen the health of a business be as bright as this one.

“I’m involved in a lot of businesses. This is an awesome business. It’s a privilege to be able to own an NFL franchise. And to have a labor disruption at this point in time of the evolution of the game is criminal.

“It really would be sad. And it will fall on both sides.’’

Kraft is expected to be a central figure in the negotiations. The former Patriots season ticket-holder is on ownership’s labor committee, which will try to hammer out an agreement alongside commissioner Roger Goodell with the union before it is put to a vote among all owners. Both sides view Kraft as a key centrist.

“He’s been a voice of optimism throughout the process, and that’s important to have,’’ said Andrew Brandt, a former executive with the Packers who was previously on the other side of this dispute, as an agent. “And he has a presence where other owners listen, and that will sway the room, in part.

“The question is whether his take is supported by the larger group. My sense is there are some different levels of optimism among the group. He will have an impact.’’

If this plays out as many expect, Kraft could be staring across the table at his prized franchise quarterback, Tom Brady, at a seminal point in the battle.

Brady, the Patriots’ alternate representative to the union, has been asked to be part of an antitrust lawsuit against the league.

It may come to that.

The NFL has had two prior work stoppages and lost games each time. In 1982, 98 games were lost as the result of a player strike. A 1987 player strike cost the league only 14 games because replacement players were used for three weeks.

The disharmony among NFL owners and players comes on the heels of drastic work stoppages in baseball (1994) and hockey (2004-05). Baseball had its World Series canceled for the first time since 1904, and the NHL wiped out an entire season.

But all of those were decisive battles on the labor front. NFL players previously wanted free agency. Baseball and hockey owners wanted a salary cap.

While there are many issues to be hammered out in a new collective bargaining agreement for the NFL — including an 18-game regular season, a rookie salary cap, and player safety — this fight is essentially about one thing: the $9 billion the NFL generates in revenue.

“What has led to most work stoppages in the past is either players fighting for basic rights like free agency, or owners fighting for a fundamental shift in the structure of the league like a salary cap,’’ said Gabriel Feldman, director of the Tulane Sports Law Program. “And neither of those is at issue here. The owners have a cap, the players have free agency rights. Now we’re essentially talking about dividing up money.’’

The sides have arrived at this point because the owners unanimously opted out of the 2006 collective bargaining agreement on May 20, 2008 — only two years after it passed with just two dissenting votes (Cincinnati Bengals and Buffalo Bills).

The owners felt the agreement gave the players too much of the revenue. The NFL is given a $1 billion credit off the top of the $9 billion for operating and “grow the game’’ expenses. Of the remaining money, the players receive about 60 percent. The owners see that as an unsustainable model.

“Unlike other leagues that have had this issue, whether it’s the NHL in the past or the NBA maybe in the future, [owners are] not claiming financial loss,’’ said Brandt, who founded NationalFootballPost.com. “They’re claiming some ominous signs and they want to correct it before it’s too late. And I see complete unison on that [from the owners].’’

NFLPA president Kevin Mawae, a former center for the New York Jets and Tennessee Titans, seemed to back up the owners’ side in an interview with Sirius NFL radio in January.

“I think what really happened is in 2006, we got such a great deal,’’ Mawae said. “I mean the players got a good deal and the owners felt they got it handed to them and it’s kind of a revenge factor.’’

The league said those were the same words being spoken by the union behind closed doors.

“They know that’s not a sustainable model,’’ Jeff Pash, the league’s general counsel, said at the Super Bowl. “They have sat in meetings with us and said, ‘We know you’re being squeezed. We know your profits are being squeezed.’ They have sat in meetings with us and said, ‘You’re getting crushed,’ by non-player costs.

The owners want another $1 billion off the top to help the game grow, especially in the realm of stadiums where public money has dried up and some, like Kraft, are paying heavy debt service on privately funded stadiums.

“The billion off of the top was an opening offer,’’ Brandt said. “This is a negotiation, nothing more, nothing less.’’

Barring an extension of the negotiations, the next move (or non-move) will be on the part of the union. If it intends to decertify, it would have to do so by 6 p.m., or it will have to wait six months for another opportunity. NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith already has been given the power to do so by the players. He would exercise that major weapon if there is no progress.

Decertifying or dissolving the union would, in theory, prevent the league from locking the players out. But the owners would probably still follow through, setting off a key courtroom battle.

“The owners are going to argue that even after the players decertify, they can still be locked out,’’ Feldman said. “And we don’t know the answer to that question. That’s without precedent.’’

If the players are allowed to decertify, the union would file an antitrust lawsuit against the league aimed at, among other things, restricted free agency, the franchise tag, and the salary cap.

Brady, along with teammate Logan Mankins and star quarterbacks Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts and Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints, have already been approached to lend their names to the suit, according to Yahoo! Sports.

“This union has very respected players in leadership positions, and that will be key to this negotiation,’’ Brandt said. “Tom Brady carries great respect. The fact that you have highly respected players in leadership positions will make a difference in my opinion.’’

They’ll be stuck in the middle, starting tomorrow.

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at gbedard@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @greg_a_bedard.

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