WASHINGTON – All along, the NFL said it was certain the union would dissolve itself and players would head to court for antitrust lawsuits.

All along, the union insisted the league’s owners were planning to lock out the players.

And that’s exactly what happened.

Unable to decide how to divvy up $9 billion a year, NFL owners and players put the country’s most popular sport in limbo by breaking off labor negotiations hours before their contract expired. At midnight Friday, the owners locked out the players, creating the NFL’s first work stoppage since 1987 and putting the 2011 season in jeopardy.

The league said in a statement Saturday it was “taking the difficult but necessary step of exercising its right under federal labor law to impose a lockout of the union.”

On Friday, the union decertified, meaning it declared itself out of the business of representing players. In exchange for giving up their rights under labor law, the players became able to take their chances in court under antitrust law.

That paved the way for 10 players, including MVP quarterbacks Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, to sue the owners in federal court in Minneapolis in a class-action claim. The players also sought an injunction to block a lockout — even before one had been imposed.

Despite two extensions to the collective bargaining agreement during 16 days of talks overseen by a federal mediator following months of stop-and-start negotiating, the sides could not agree on a new deal.

The league’s statement Saturday called the NFL Players Association’s decertification a “sham” and said the players’ court action is “built on the indisputably false premise that the NFLPA has stopped being a union and will merely delay the process of reaching an agreement.”

The statement also said to fans: “We know that you want football. You will have football. This will be resolved.”

As was clear all along, the dispute came down to money. In the end, it appeared the sides were about $185 million apart on how much owners should get up front each season for certain operating expenses before splitting the rest of the revenues with players, a far cry from the $1 billion that separated the sides for months.

But the union refused to budge any further without getting detailed financial information for each team.

“I would dare any one of you to pull out any economic indicator that would suggest that the National Football League is falling on hard times,” NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith said. “The last 14 days, the National Football League has said, ‘Trust us.’ But when it came time for verification, they told us it was none of our business.”

By dissolving and announcing it no longer represents the players in collective bargaining, the union cleared the way for class-action lawsuits against the NFL, which exercised a CBA opt-out clause in 2008. The antitrust suit, to be known as Brady et al vs. National Football League et al, attacked the league’s policies on the draft, salary cap and free-agent restrictions such as franchise-player tags.

Invoking the Sherman Act, a federal antitrust statute from 1890 that limits monopolies and restrictions on commerce, the players are seeking triple the amount of damages they’ve incurred. That means the stakes could be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

It could take a month for a ruling on the union’s injunction request, and antitrust judgments should take longer.

Depending on what happens in court, next season could be threatened. The last time games were lost to a work stoppage came when the players struck 24 years ago, leading to games with replacement players.

A lockout is a right management has to shut down a business when a CBA expires. It means there can be no communication between the teams and current NFL players; no players — including those drafted in April — can be signed; teams won’t pay for health insurance for players.

Even though the NFL is early in its offseason and the regular season is six months away, this is hardly a complete downtime. Free agency usually begins in March and there are hundreds of free agents now in limbo.

March and early April are when many sponsors and corporate partners renew their deals with the NFL, part of why the league says hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue are going to be lost now.

“This obviously is a very disappointing day for all of us. I’ve been here for the better part of two weeks now, and essentially … the union’s position on the core economic issues has not changed one iota,” New York Giants owner John Mara said. “One thing that became painfully apparent to me during this period was that their objective was to go the litigation route.”

The sides met from 10 a.m. until about 4 p.m. Friday, discussing a new proposal by the owners. When a possible third extension to the CBA was mentioned, the union said it first wanted assurances it would get 10 years of audited finances.

“I will tell you this: Any business where two partners don’t trust each other, any business where one party says, ‘You need to do X, Y and Z because I told you,’ is a business that is not only not run well, it is a business that can never be as successful as it can be,” Smith said.

At 4:45 p.m., Smith and the union’s negotiators left the mediator’s office. About 15 minutes later, the union decertified.

“No one is happy where we are now,” NFL lead negotiator Jeff Pash said. “I think we know where the (union’s) commitment was. It was a commitment to litigate all along.”

After Pash spoke outside the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, union lawyer Jim Quinn spoke at NFLPA headquarters three blocks away and said: “I hate to say this, but he has not told the truth to our players or our fans. He has, in a word, lied to them about what happened today and what’s happened over the last two weeks and the last two years.”

The NFL said its offer included splitting the difference in the dispute over how much money owners should be given off the top of the league’s revenues. Under the expiring CBA, the owners immediately got about $1 billion before dividing the remainder of revenues with the players; the owners entered negotiations seeking to roughly double that.

But the owners eventually reduced that additional upfront demand to about $650 million. Then on Friday they offered to drop that to about $325 million. Smith said the union offered during talks to give up $550 million over the first four years of a new agreement, or an average of $137.5 million.

“We worked hard,” said NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.