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Deflategate legal costs could be near $20 million

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Deflategate returns to the court (1:03)

ESPN Patriots reporter Mike Reiss discusses what to expect Thursday as legal teams for Tom Brady and the NFL return to court. (1:03)

How much do lawyers make from a case regarding a few deflated footballs?

It's hard to know how many hours attorneys for the NFL, the players union (on behalf of Tom Brady) and the New England Patriots are billing, but a survey of three lawyers who have worked for leagues say that -- no matter what happens in the court of appeals Thursday -- legal costs could eventually hit $20 million for Deflategate.

Let's show you the math.

Estimated costs to the NFL: $12.5M

The NFL paid investigator Ted Wells' firm at least $2.5 million for his original findings on the Deflategate investigation. We know this because Wells testified that it would be in this range. An estimate of double that amount ($5 million) is a fair number for what the NFL has paid two additional law firms, one that was involved in the decision to suspend Brady and the other to litigate the case. Large corporations like the NFL have the muscle to negotiate alternative billing arrangements, like flat fees or monthly fees, in certain circumstances, but it's still not cheap. A negotiated deal is often being compared to rates that approach $1,000 an hour. The clock was running last summer up until federal judge Richard Berman overturned Brady's four-game suspension in September.

Additional costs have piled on with the NFL's appeal -- and that's just for outside counsel. The NFL's top lawyer, Jeffrey Pash, who made $7.5 million in 2014, has led the league's stance on the case. Assuming he's making that same amount, and that he has spent roughly 60 percent of his work days on Deflategate, that's $4.5 million. We'll conservatively estimate that inside counsel under Pash has devoted $500,000 worth of their time to the case.

Estimated costs to the NFL Players Association: $5M

The players union, on behalf of Brady, has also spent a considerable amount of money on this case. Their main outside counsel, Winston & Strawn, will have nine lawyers in court Thursday at the appeal. Knowing that the firm billed the union $3.5 million from March 2014 through February 2015 for all its work, assigning a $3 million number to Deflategate is reasonable. Taking into account another firm the union hired, Gibson & Dunn, as well as the time devoted internally by the union, figure another $2 million has been spent.

Estimated costs to the Patriots: $500K

We're estimating another half million was spent by the Patriots on the case, which includes the 20,000 word public rebuttal to the Wells Report prepared by its outside counsel Morgan Lewis.

So that gets us to $18 million. How does it rise to $20 million? First of all, there are some missing costs. A vendor for document production is a considerable cost, as is the cost for expert witnesses. Since there's a large range here, it's harder to attach a number to this.

But we know the costs will increase beyond Thursday's appeal. Why? Because no matter what happens, either side is going to appeal. Why wouldn't the league give up after being dealt two losses? Because it's no longer about Deflategate. Through Berman's decision, the NFLPA gained the right to go outside the prearranged agreement of arbitration set forth in the CBA. Berman said NFL commissioner Roger Goodell would be conflicted as a judge in the arbitration, giving the union the right to settle grievances in court. If the NFL loses that right in the future, it's a major blow to its disciplinary measures.