ATLANTA -- The NFL officially notified its players union on Tuesday that it will opt out of the current collective bargaining agreement, which could lead to a season without a salary cap in 2010 and a possible lockout in 2011.
Owners voted unanimously Tuesday morning to opt out of the deal, which was extended in March 2006. The NFL had until November to opt out, but decided to do it early instead of waiting for the deadline.
The league, however, emphasized that it will keep negotiating with the NFL Players Association and said games will be played "without threat of interruption for at least the next three seasons."
"We have guaranteed three more years of NFL football," commissioner Roger Goodell said after the owners used the opt-out clause built into the agreement signed more than two years ago. "We are not in dire straits. We've never said that. But the agreement isn't working, and we're looking to get a more fair and equitable deal."
The decision by the owners was anticipated, although not this early. The 2006 agreement allowed either side to negate the contract by Nov. 8. Goodell said the owners acted early "to get talks rolling."
NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw had been anticipating the early termination of the agreement. He met with owners two weeks ago, and from that meeting he asked for audited financial reports from owners to document their economic problems.
"Roger [Goodell] e-mailed me this morning [and] told me they had a unanimous agreement to terminate the deal," Upshaw said. "My response back to him? 'What a surprise.'"
"All this means is that we will have football now until 2010 and not until 2012," Upshaw added during a conference call. "We will move ahead. This just starts the clock ticking. If we can't reach agreement by 2010, then we go to no man's land, which is 2011."
Players preferred not to think about a work stoppage. Upshaw has said the union won't strike but owners could lock out players if there is no agreement by then.
"It's obviously a legitimate concern, but three years is a long time," Denver cornerback Domonique Foxworth said. "Hopefully we can get something done. The most important thing there is nobody who benefits from not having a season, so I think in that time we'll find a way, between the players union and the league, to make it happen."
"Our league has been very prosperous, so any time you're talking about anything that could effect labor, it is a big deal," said Houston kicker Kris Brown, the Texans' union representative. "It's not like the threat of losing a season is imminent, because that's not the case. We're talking about this now but one year from now, two years from now we could come to an agreement and have an extension and all this is for nothing."
Upshaw said Goodell's e-mail listed three reasons for the early termination: high labor costs, problems with the rookie pool and the league's inability, through the interpretation of the courts, to recoup bonuses of players who subsequently breach their contract or refuse to perform.
The highest-profile example of the latter was a court decision allowing Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick to keep $16.5 million in bonus money, despite pleading guilty to federal dogfighting charges and being sentenced to 23 months in federal prison.
According to the NFL, clubs are obligated by the collective bargaining agreement to spend almost $4.5 billion on player costs in 2008. Players received around 60 percent of league revenues. Growing costs of stadium construction and operations also figured into Tuesday's decision.
The owners also want a change in the system to distribute the money more to veterans than to unproven rookies. Their argument is based on a disparity in salaries that leaves them spending far more on unproven rookies than on dependable veterans.
"The current labor agreement does not adequately recognize the cost of generating the revenues of which the players receive the largest shares; nor does the agreement recognize that those costs have increased substantially -- and at an ever increasing rate -- in recent years during a difficult economic climate in our country," the NFL said.
The agreement signed two years ago was to last until 2013 with the option to terminate in 2011, which is what the owners did Tuesday. League officials and owners, including several who helped push through the last deal, have been saying for almost a year that while the previous contract may have been too beneficial to the owners, the current one had swung too far toward the players.
NFLPA outside counsel Jeffrey Kessler told The Wall Street Journal prior to Tuesday's announcement that if the owners were to opt out, the union "plans to ask for a greater share of revenues."
Kessler added that "Every deal we've gotten with them, we've received another increase."
"We are resolved to do our best to achieve a fair agreement that will allow labor peace to continue through and beyond the 2011 season," the league said Tuesday.
The debate will continue in negotiations and through the media over a course of months and years. Both sides conceded there might be no agreement until the deadline, which Upshaw suggested might not happen until the winter of 2010. That would be a year without a salary cap under terms of the deal.
"We'd like to get things done," Goodell said. "But often it's not until you have a deadline that people realize the consequences of not reaching a deal."
Upshaw added: "March of 2010 -- that's what we see as the realistic deadline. I'm not going to sell the players on a cap again. Once we go through the cap, why should we agree to it again?"
In other business at the league meetings, NFL owners voted to play the 2012 Super Bowl in Indianapolis, beating out Glendale, Ariz., and Houston. The Colts, who are opening a brand-new stadium this fall, lost out last year to the Dallas Cowboys' new stadium in Arlington, Texas, for the 2011 game.
As part of its bid, Indianapolis has envisioned an "NFL Village" covering three downtown blocks, as well as a privately funded athletic facility that would be used for practices before the game and then turned over to a city high school.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. ESPN NFL reporter Chris Mortensen and The Associated Press contributed to this report.