NFL owners huddle in Atlanta. Hail Mary pass needed to save preseason?

A collective-bargaining deal is on the table at an NFL owners meeting in Atlanta, and while prospects look good, a deadline looms. If the deal is not approved by owners and players this week, preseason games could be lost.

Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank (l.) arrives for an NFL owners meeting in College Park, Ga., Thursday.

In 2007, NFL team owners met in Atlanta to back out of the league's collective bargaining agreement with players. Four years later, they're back to potentially end the 127-day player lockout that began this spring, and, in a last-ditch effort, attempt to save the preseason that begins on Aug. 7.

All indications are that the owners and players are close to a 10-year deal on how to divvy up the league's $9.3 billion in ticket, television, and licensing revenues. But if a deal can't be hammered out Thursday, the first game of the preseason, the Aug. 7 Hall of Fame Game between the St. Louis Rams and Chicago Bears in Canton, Ohio, will be in jeopardy. With further delays, other preseason games could also start dropping off the schedule.

Reports suggest that the framework for the deal is in place. What remains unresolved are three lawsuits by players against the league – one over television revenue, an antitrust case, and one regarding lost benefits by players. The league is eyeing a "global settlement," that would not only establish the new collective-bargaining agreement, but also settle the lawsuits.

But with the fate the lawsuits still unsettled, and player representatives from the 32 teams still reading the fine print of the agreement, the players did not vote on the deal Wednesday, as had been expected.

While expectations were that players might vote on the deal Thursday, players union president Kevin Mawae said players are "not tied" to a deadline.

"We want to go back to work, but we will not agree to a deal unless it's the best deal for the players," Mr. Mawae told reporters Wednesday. "The players are not tied to a July 21 timeline. Our timeline is that which gives us the best deal for the players – today, tomorrow or whatever it might be."

At the same time, the owners have a chance to shift the leverage in the negotiations with a ratification of the labor agreement at their meeting in Atlanta Thursday. If at least 24 of 32 owners approve the deal, the vote would put the onus squarely on players in what has been, for the past four months, a pitched battle for sympathy from fans by both sides.

"Cautious. It’s cautious. But I think we’re making progress,” NFL general counsel Jeff Pash told reporters Wednesday. “I think … both sides are at the point where they can close, they should close and we should be in position to take votes.”

In many analysts' views, the meetings in Atlanta today mark a key moment for the belabored NFL labor talks.

If a deal isn't signed Thursday or Friday, "other exhibition cancellations could soon follow," writes Alex Marvez for Fox Sports. "If the entire slate of preseason games were shuttered, there would be an estimated $800 million revenue loss. That would change the NFL’s economic model for the 2011 season and potentially force both sides back to the drawing board."

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