- Associated Press - Sunday, February 6, 2011

ARLINGTON, TEXAS (AP) - It’s made for TV. It’s packed with personalities, sex appeal and wall-to-wall violence. It’s the National Football League.

By far, football is America’s favorite sport. Yet despite that, when they turn out the lights after Sunday’s Super Bowl between the Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers, the party could be over.

A labor war that pits rich athletes against richer owners could shut down the game for who knows how long.

The collective bargaining agreement that led to unprecedented success for the NFL expires at the end of the day on March 3, and barring an agreement before then, owners are threatening to lock out players.

They are pondering the unthinkable: The first play stoppage since 1987. The shutdown of the only form of entertainment that, as the sky-high TV ratings this year have shown, consistently brings people together in a tweeting, texting, TiVo-ing country where viewing habits get more fragmented by the day.

“For a sport at the height of its popularity to self-destruct by lacking the will and creativity to solve economic problems would be the height of folly,” agent Leigh Steinberg said. “Who wants to be the person to kill this golden goose?”

To hear the two sides tell it, they’re trying to make it better, not kill it. But they are far apart on how to get that done.

Owners say it’s time to pocket more money for a league that hasn’t started a stadium project in more than five years. They want a bigger slice of the roughly $9 billion in revenue, a rookie wage scale and to increase the regular season by two games to 18.

The players think those two extra games will cause an exponential rise in injuries and don’t want to give back any percentage of the revenue pool, a massive slice of which comes from the networks, which combine to pay around $4 billion a year to televise the NFL.

In the kind of theater that only the NFL could provide, Cincinnati receiver Chad Ochocinco stood up among the journalists at Commissioner Roger Goodell’s annual news conference Friday to ask the question on every football fan’s mind.

“Do you know how far away we are from getting a deal realistically done?” Ochocinco said.

Goodell said both sides are preparing for any outcome, but “the commitment on behalf of ownership is to get an agreement.”

He reiterated that Sunday in an interview on Fox, saying a negotiating session between the owners and players the day before was “beneficial.”

“My focus is on the next three or four weeks,” Goodell said. “I’ve often said, our agreement expires on March 4th. We have to use that period of time to reach an agreement that’s fair for the players, fair for the clubs, and allows our great game to grow for our fans.”

Not doing so could stop the show after one of the most riveting seasons anyone can remember.

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