WASHINGTON — America's favorite sport is still in business – for another day.
The NFL and the players' union decided Thursday to keep the current collective bargaining agreement in place for an additional 24 hours so that negotiations can continue.
"The parties have agreed to a one-day extension," federal mediator George Cohen said in a one-sentence statement after the sides met with him for about eight hours. The CBA was set to expire at midnight, which would likely have prompted the first work stoppage since 1987 for a league that rakes in $9 billion a year.
"For all our fans who dig our game, we appreciate your patience as we work through this," union executive director DeMaurice Smith said as he emerged from the talks. "We are going to keep working. We want to play football."
Said NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell as he left: "We are working as hard as we can."
Allowing the CBA to expire could put the two sides on the road to a year without football, even though opening kickoff of the 2011 season is still six months away. The labor unrest comes as the NFL is at the height of its popularity, breaking records for TV ratings: This year's Super Bowl was the most-watched program in U.S. history.
If the CBA expires, the owners could lock out the players, and the union could decertify to try and prevent that through the courts – something the NFLPA did in 1989. It formed again in 1993.
NFL lead negotiator Jeff Pash said the sides had "good discussions and exchanges," and "we're going to be back here (Friday) morning."
A person with knowledge of the talks said the 24-hour extension was an opportunity to decide whether there would be a willingness to extend negotiations further.
The person, who spoke to the AP on the condition of anonymity because the talks were supposed to remain confidential, said the sides were apart on economics, but have agreed on other topics. The person would not say what the two sides do agree on.
Another person familiar with the negotiations said the two sides were not expected to resume face-to-face bargaining on Friday. Instead they'll meet separately with Cohen to hash out whether to prolong the extension – and if so, for how many days.
Washington Redskins player representative Vonnie Holliday cautioned that the two sides are "still apart" on a pact to replace the current CBA. "I don't see how we can be that close right now unless somebody is going to pull a rabbit out of the hat," he said. "I just don't see it."
While the league and players' union met for a 10th day with Cohen, even President Barack Obama weighed in when asked if he would intervene in the dispute.
"I'm a big football fan," Obama said, "but I also think that for an industry that's making $9 billion a year in revenue, they can figure out how to divide it up in a sensible way and be true to their fans, who are the ones who obviously allow for all the money that they're making. So my expectation and hope is that they will resolve it without me intervening, because it turns out I've got a lot of other stuff to do."
Besides Goodell, also on hand for the NFL were Pash, outside counsel Bob Batterman, New York Giants owner John Mara, Green Bay Packers president Mark Murphy, Washington Redskins general manager Bruce Allen and several other league executives. Mara and Murphy are members of the league's labor committee, which has the authority to call for a lockout if a new agreement isn't reached.
"We'll stay at it as long as it takes," Pash said as the day began.
They'll be staying at least into Friday.
The biggest sticking point all along has been how to divide the league's revenues, including what cut team owners should get up front to help cover certain costs, such as stadium construction. Under the old deal, owners received about $1 billion off the top. They entered these negotiations seeking to add another $1 billion to that.
Among the other significant topics: a rookie wage scale; the owners' push to expand the regular season from 16 games to 18 while reducing the preseason by two games; and benefits for retired players.
Since the 1987 players' strike that shortened the season to 15 games – with three of those games featuring nonunion replacement players – there has been labor peace in the NFL. The foundation of the current CBA was reached in 1993 by then-Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and union chief Gene Upshaw. It has been extended five times as revenues soared, the league expanded to 32 profitable teams, and new stadiums were built across America to house them.
The contract extension reached in 2006 was the final major act for Tagliabue, who then retired, succeeded by Goodell. An opt-out clause for each side was included in that deal, and the owners exercised it in May 2008 – three months before Upshaw died.
Smith replaced Upshaw in March 2009.
Joining Smith at the mediation session Thursday were union president Kevin Mawae, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, Indianapolis Colts center Jeff Saturday, Pittsburgh Steelers backup quarterback Charlie Batch and several others, including current and former players. More than a dozen TV cameras and twice as many reporters waited on the sidewalk outside the mediation headquarters, along with a few fans.
A George Washington University student held up a yellow homemade sign: "Don't Make Me Watch Hockey," it read.
AP Pro Football Writer Barry Wilner, AP Sports Writer Joseph White and AP Writer Ken Thomas in Washington contributed to this report.