Friday, April 25, 2008

New Pro Football (Minor) League?
Why the NFL Draft Holds The Key

PFT's Florio has some interesting ideas about what would make a second pro football league work. This "UNFL" league is not quite there, despite a clever positioning as a "minor league." (I thought that was Arena League's function?)

Still, I can't help but go back to my go-to strategy: The only alternative pro football league that can possibly succeed will allow -- and recruit -- players otherwise draft-ineligible by the NFL.

That means college freshmen and sophomores -- and I'd even argue that with the rise of prep recruiting as its own massive industry, they should recruit high school seniors (like Terrelle Pryor, already a household name to football fans) go to from prep-to-pro.

Otherwise, "minor league" football just means "players not good enough make the NFL" -- it's hardly appealing, particularly given that the NFL seems to have zero interest in making the UNFL (or any other league beyond the one whose acronym is "NCAA") their minor league, officially or otherwise.

Instead, a start-up league needs to feature players who absolutely would make the NFL, but the NFL simply restrains from allowing in. Sure, your minor league can have UFAs or taxi-squad veterans, too. But the marquee young college players -- the ones who get fans (and NFL scouts) to tune in -- will be the key.

And the NFL -- with its draconian draft-eligibility rules -- has created an incredible opportunity for a rival: There isn't much competitive room left for anyone else in pro football, but this is a known and exposed flaw of the NFL that is just ripe to be taken advantage of.

It would actually improve the NFL: By allowing super-talented draft-ineligible college players -- the ones who would absolutely be drafted, if only the NFL let teams have the chance -- to ignore things irrelevant to their pro potential... like, um, college requirements... those players could focus entirely on their NFL development, coached by coaches focused entirely on their NFL development.

It is a 1- or 2- or 3-year experience that would have the players more ready to contribute immediately at the NFL level than college allows them to, while paying them really well for that training, compensation that doesn't even begin to account for endorsement dollars that they would instantly be eligible to generate.

It is fine for these superstars to cycle in and out after 1 or 2 or 3 years -- there will be a steady pipeline behind them. And, make no mistake, they will forego college for this TRUE minor league. Maybe after 1 year, maybe after 2 or 3.

It won't hurt college football: Like the NBA's relationship with college hoops has shown, fans of college sports tune in for -- all together now -- the name on the front of the jersey, not the name on the back.

Only the very best players will opt for this new pro league, because only the very best players will be given signals from the marketplace that it is worth their time and risk to do it. Maybe that signal comes after a freshman year -- or even after a sophomore year. Still: Freshman and sophomore players with draft-worthy NFL talent would be better off turning pro with a minor-league dedicated to their talent (and financial) development than playing another year or two of college football.

Meanwhile, college football will roll on; without the previous stars in front of them, new stars will emerge -- it is an inevitability. And some players will skip out on the pro option altogether, because they love the college environment. That's fine -- more power to them! It's not for everyone. But it should be out there as an option for some.

The NFL's insistence on artificially limiting the market forces of their player development creates -- like any artificial limits placed on anything -- a unique opportunity to capitalize on it, creating value for the players and, ultimately, the NFL and its fans.

Until any of these so-called "minor" or "alternative" leagues take advantage of this NFL-sanctioned (and tacitly encouraged) arbitrage opportunity and pursue the recruitment of players otherwise locked out of the NFL Draft process, I can't take them seriously.

-- D.S.

Update: Already got an email from someone agreeing with the premise. Here was my reply:
Even if each team in a 4 or 6 or 8 team league had one "Beckham-rule"-style player, alongside a bunch of wannabes, why not?

Because here's the thing: You wouldn't just get a handful of early entrant players -- you'd probably get 15-20 (or more) in any given class. In a 4-team pro league, that's 5 guys per roster -- most college teams don't have 5 NFL-quality stars.

And as soon as you proved that players who go through the "development league" (or whatever) end up (a) making money immediately, (b) get drafted higher and (c) have better NFL careers faster, the best players would flood in.

I don't get why that isn't the first thing an alternative league promotes as a differentiator: We won't keep NFL-quality players out just because of their birthday. The key is to emphasize that these are NFL-quality players -- first-round material, future stars of the NFL that you can catch NOW, as they develop -- playing in the new league.


mark83 said...

Your premise that your new minor professional football league will need to dig deeper into the player resources that are currently provided by the NCAA colleges.
As you deplete the football player quality available to the college coaches, they and their administrators are going to have to react to protect the quality of the college game. Those large stadiums can't stand half empty for long before the colleges start thinking about the recommendations of the Knight Commission. If those ideas in any form start to be implemented then college football will return very quickly to the game it was in the 1930s. It makes more sense for the NFL to build its own version of the Major Baseball League's farm system.

BettorFan said...

This idea will never work because no one will want to pay to see "wannabe" NFL players. Having a "stepping stone league" is great for the players, but no one will risk financial capital into a system that is too shaky. Isn't the Arena League going down the drains? -

BLT said...

The Canadian Football League has had several players that weren't draft eligible for the NFL, probably the most notable being Tamarick Vanover, who played his one year and then went to the NFL. People would pay to see a guy like Pryor, just like they are paying to see him play at OSU. As long as they can get enough players to forego college or maybe even take CFL players to fill out rosters, this league would have a chance to work.

mark83 said...

To believe that the NFL teams find all of the quality players is a myth. They cut players every year from their roster that eventually make it on other teams. They don't have the ability to train qualified but inexperienced players as other sports do in their minor leagues. The NFL relies on the colleges as their minor leagues. These tough financial times may find them to be short sighted. A guide to building a minor professional football league can be found at

mark83 said...

Mark83 is absolutly correct. It is the NFLs job to build it's own training ground for its players. The colleges are not going to be able to afford to be the NFL's Minor league.The nFL tried it in the late 60s and found out that it worked but some owner believed that the colleges were a better financial approach and the NFL passed by-laws that made it impossible for the owners to sat up a minor league. However, nows the time for the NFL to rethink their approach. There's a guide for them to follow on