WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The NFL and the players' union have agreed to a 24-hour extension in their negotiations over how to carve up their $9 billion empire in a last-ditch attempt to save America's most popular and richest sport from a lockout.
The move postpones, for a day at least, the real threat of a damaging lockout from the owners and the risk of an antitrust lawsuit from the union - and came after the U.S. President Barack Obama told the feuding parties he had no interest in getting involved in a squabble between billionaires and millionaires.
"My working assumption at a time when people are having to cut back, compromise and worry about making the mortgage and pay for their kids' college educations is that the two parties should be able to work it out without the President of the United States intervening," he told reporters at the White House.
The decision to extend the negotiations by 24 hours came on the final day of talks in the nation's capital as the original deadline, which expired at midnight Thursday, was drawing closer.
NFL officials left the building without speaking to reporters. The only confirmation of the temporary truce was provided in a statement by the mediator George Cohen. "The parties have agreed to a one day extension," the statement read.
The NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith offered a brief glimmer of hope that a compromise might still be reached as he made his exit from the meeting.
"I just want to say to all of our fans who dig our game. We appreciate your patience as we work through this," he said.
"We're going to keep working. We want to play football."
The sides have been locked in negotiations with a federal mediator over the past 10 days after months of largely fruitless talks over how to divide the NFL's massive annual profits.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said he believes players' salaries are rising faster than the league's revenues and that the existing business model must be changed to grow the sport.
The players are largely satisfied with the status quo, but owners want a bigger slice of revenues.
Currently, the owners take $1 billion out of the $9 billion revenue to cover their costs before dividing the rest, with the players' share of the remaining $8 billion set at just under 60 percent.
Owners have said they would be willing to leave the split, as agreed in 2006, but want at least another billion dollars put on their side of the ledger before dividing up the loot -- which could cost the players more than $500 million a year.
Other key issues include the possible move to an 18-game regular season, a rookie wage scale and pensions for former players.
The league has argued that the union wants to 'decertify', effectively becoming a trade association, to allow it to take antitrust action in the courts.
The last work stoppage in the NFL was in 1987.
(Reporting by Simon Evans in Miami; Editing by Julian Linden; To query or comment on this story email email@example.com)