The NFL will start hiring and training possible replacement officials with a deal not yet completed with the NFL Referees Association.
Talks between the league and the officials broke down after two mediation sessions that followed nine bargaining negotiations since October. Both sides have said they expect a new collective bargaining agreement in time for the upcoming season.
But that optimism has disappeared.
A session was held Sunday under the auspices of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, and the NFLRA said the league "terminated negotiations" on Monday.
The NFL said new demands made by the officials led to the end of talks.
"In yesterday's session, the NFLRA ... abandoned positions that it had previously taken with both us and the mediators, and made economic demands totalling millions of additional dollars that they had agreed to drop at earlier sessions," league spokesman Greg Aiello said.
The league said that regional training sessions for replacement officials would begin this month "to ensure that there is no disruption to NFL games this season."
"Our goal is to maintain the highest quality of officiating for our teams, players, and fans, including proper enforcement of the playing rules and efficient management of our games," the league said in a statement.
The NFL's search would target retired college officials and perhaps current ones who would be qualified to work professional games.
Referees counsel Mike Arnold called those replacements "amateur referees."
"It is unfortunate that as referees' responsibilities are expanded that the NFL would jeopardize player health and safety and the integrity of the game by seeking amateur, under-qualified referees to administer professional games," Arnold said.
But Aiello argued that there is nothing amateur about the potential replacements.
"The officials we are hiring are professionals who officiate games at a high level and have backgrounds similar to current NFL officials," Aiello said. "We have every confidence that the officials who we bring on will do a fully credible job, and will manage our games efficiently and effectively enforce the playing rules."
Most NFL officials hold other jobs in the off-season.
Detroit Lions quarterback Shaun Hill prefers to see the usual game officials on the field.
"We hope our regular crews are ready to go after they get everything worked out," Hill said. "But if not, the game has to go on."
The NFL made a seven-year proposal that offered increases of between 5 per cent and 11 per cent in wages per year. First-year officials who made an average of $78,000 in 2011 would earn more than $165,000 by the end of the new agreement. A 10-year veteran in 2011 who made $139,000 would get more than $200,000 in 2018.
Aiello said the NFL also offered a retirement arrangement under which each official would receive annual contributions starting at $16,500 and increasing to almost $23,000, plus a wide range of investment opportunities and expanded reimbursement for medical insurance costs.
The players' union expressed its concern about replacement officials, issuing a statement saying:
"In 2011, the NFL tasked officials with increased responsibilities in protecting player health and safety, and its search for scabs undermines that important function. Professional athletes require professional referees, and we believe in the NFL Referees Association's trained first responders."
In 2001, the league used replacement officials for one preseason game, then the first weekend of the regular season. An agreement was then reached, and another CBA was negotiated in 2006 that expired after last season.