WASHINGTON — Welcome to The NFL Lockout.
As far back as two years ago, it became a possibility.
As recently as a week ago — when owners and players agreed to extend the deadline for reaching a labor deal — Commissioner Roger Goodell made it sound avoidable.
And yet here we are: The country's most popular sport — water-cooler fodder for six months of Mondays; generator of more than $9 billion in annual revenues; responsible for the two most-watched programs in U.S. TV history, the 2010 and 2011 Super Bowls — is stuck in a holding pattern, thanks to its first work stoppage in nearly a quarter of a century.
The owners imposed a lockout on the players Saturday, essentially shutting down operations. That came hours after talks broke off and the union dissolved itself.
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.
WASHINGTON (AP) — All along, the NFL said it was certain the union would dissolve itself and players would head to court for antitrust lawsuits.
All along, the union insisted the league's owners were planning to lock out the players.
And that's exactly what happened.
Unable to decide how to divvy up $9 billion a year, NFL owners and players put the country's most popular sport in limbo by breaking off labor negotiations hours before their contract expired. At midnight, as Friday became Saturday, the owners locked out the players — creating the NFL's first work stoppage since 1987 and putting the 2011 season in jeopardy.
The league said in a statement Saturday it was "taking the difficult but necessary step of exercising its right under federal labor low to impose a lockout of the union."
On Friday, the union decertified, meaning it declared itself out of the business of representing players. In exchange for giving up their rights under labor law, the players became able to take their chances in court under antitrust law.
That paved the way for 10 players, including MVP quarterbacks Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, to sue the owners in federal court in Minneapolis in a class-action claim. The players also sought an injunction to block a lockout — even before one had been imposed.
Despite two extensions to the collective bargaining agreement during 16 days of talks overseen by a federal mediator — following months of stop-and-start negotiating — the sides could not agree on a new deal.
The league's statement Saturday called the NFL Players Association's decertification a "sham" and said the players' court action is "built on the indisputably false premise that the NFLPA has stopped being a union and will merely delay the process of reaching an agreement."
The statement told fans: "We know that you want football. You will have football. This will be resolved."
As was clear all along, the dispute came down to money. In the end, it appeared the sides were about $185 million apart on how much owners should get up front each season for certain operating expenses before splitting the rest of the revenues with players — a far cry from the $1 billion that separated the sides for months.