|DeMaurice Smith (L) and Roger Goodell (R) break the good news to the media [GALLO/GETTY]
NFL player representatives unanimously agreed to a new 10-year contract with club owners on Monday, ensuring the season will start as planned in September after a four month lockout.
"Football is back and that's great news," NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said.
"It has been a long time coming. We know what we did to frustrate our fans over the last several months. They want football and our job is to give them football."
Owners and players agreed on final terms in the early hours of Monday morning and the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) executive committee presented details to player representatives ahead of the crucial vote.
"I know it has been a very long process since the day we stood here that night in March, but our guys stood together when nobody thought we would and football is back because of it"
NFLPA's DeMaurice Smith
The players group unanimously voted on Monday to approve a new deal, setting the stage for the end of the NFL's longest work stoppage, a lockout that began March 11.
"I know it has been a very long process since the day we stood here that night in March, but our guys stood together when nobody thought we would and football is back because of it," NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith said.
"I believe it's important that we talk about the future of football as a partnership."
Final legal details remain to be sorted, with a majority of all NFL players having to vote within 10 days to re-establish the NFLPA as a trade union and then to accept the deal, both approvals expected by landslide margins.
A $9.3 billion problem
The first shutdown since 1987 began when millionaire players and billionaire team owners could not agree on how to divide $9.3 billion in annual revenues. Owners opted in 2008 to end the deal this year.
The new contract will not have an early opt-out clause but would allow expansion from 16 to 18 games a season per club as soon as 2013, provided the players agree to such a move.
Goodell struck a unifying tone over a deal that brings owners as much as 53 percent of revenues after a prior 50-50 split but gives players better benefits and faster free agency for some.
"Having a 10-year agreement is extra great for our game, especially our fans," Goodell said.
| Green Bay Packers will kick-off the season against New Orleans Saints on September 8 [GALLO/GETTY]
"I think this agreement is going to make the game better. I'm grateful for all the work both parties did."
The bottom line for fans is that barring an unexpected complication, the NFL season will begin as planned on September 8 with the New Orleans Saints visiting the reigning Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers.
"We have all worked tirelessly throughout this process," NFLPA executive committee member Jeff Saturday said.
"We now look forward to a conclusion so we can return to playing the game we all love."
Saturday, a centre for the Indianapolis Colts, hugged Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, in the most symbolic moment of an owners-players news conference.
Kraft's wife, Myra, died Wednesday after a fight with cancer.
Players and owners clearly knew there were some fences to mend with fans for the uncertainty of the past few months.
"I would like to apologise to the fans for the last five, six months when we have been talking about the business of football," Kraft said.
"This is an agreement that will allow our sport to flourish."
Owners approved the deal last week and the full membership of players must yet vote upon the plan, but the approval by team representatives enables training camps to open later this week.
Hall of Fame cancelled
On Tuesday, players can return to NFL club facilities and receive playbooks while teams can sign rookies and begin making trades.
They can also open talks with free agents although none can be signed until Friday. Roster cuts can start on Thursday.
Training camps will open for 10 clubs at a time on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday and the last two on Saturday, all designed so each team has two weeks to train before its first pre-season game.
There was only one lost game - the annual pre-season opener, the Hall of Fame game that had been set for August 7. The first pre-season game will now come August 11 when San Diego host Seattle.
Securing a deal before the end of the month means that a planned game in London will take place as scheduled.