It doesn't take a Harvard MBA to figure out how the United Football League (UFL) can succeed, and it isn't by taking the NFL's taxi squad players or last-players-cut and trying to nudge them into players you might want to watch. And it isn't through alt formats (Arena) or tacky marketing (XFL).
(Although floating that they are interested in signing Michael Vick is a pretty clever idea -- guess what: He won't need to play in the UFL; at least one NFL team will be happy to take him back.)
The UFL simply needs to play where the NFL won't... or can't: Allow early entry for college football players of any age, not just players with at least 3 years of college behind them (seniors, juniors or redshirt sophs), as the NFL mandates.
If the UFL allows freshmen and sophomores into the league, they will gain instant superstars and instant traction with fans -- if instant enmity from the NFL. (That said: What can the NFL do about it, other than (a) scout the players in the UFL or (b) allow them in themselves.)
You cannot make the argument that true freshman Julio Jones isn't ready for the NFL right now; he is one of the Top 5 WRs in college football. It is absurd to argue that Adrian Peterson wasn't a first-round talent after his freshman or sophomore years. Or that Knowshon Moreno wasn't NFL-ready a year ago.
To turn the UFL into a true minor league, it has to take over the role that college football has traditionally played -- preparing the best players to play professionally.
Players are welcome to get that training in college.
I'm merely suggesting creating an alternative where young players can be paid salaries, earn endorsement money, not have to worry about academics or NCAA rules and can focus full-time on NFL development, trained by coaches whose job it is is to get them to the NFL, rather than worry about their own massive paydays. Two years and out.
The only threat to the UFL or minor league? When the NFL recognizes what is going on and accepts NFL Draft entry at any age over 18.
But let's allow the market dictate if NFL teams want to spend a precious draft pick on a raw or young talent. (Amobi Okoye obliterated that canard.) If a player isn't draft-worthy, by definition, he wouldn't be drafted -- and vice versa: If a team is willing to draft a player -- at any age -- he is, by definition, "draft-worthy."
And if the NFL team does draft a younger player (or even an older one), they should be able to ship their draftee to the UFL for extra seasoning for a year or two while retaining his rights. The draftee gets paid commensurately with draft position, regardless of whether he plays for the NFL or the minor-league team. Let the NFL team pick up the tab.
By the way, the UFL doesn't need "home" cities; they need 4 teams' worth of interesting players, who will barnstorm around the country playing one-night-only gigs in front of fans ready for a glimpse at the future of the NFL. They need to put their games on YouTube and make everything about the UFL experience transparent and accessible to fans -- a 24/7 documentary. They need to make the experience interactive for fans.
Even in a down economic climate, the UFL needs to make players available for sponsorships -- team names, logos, jerseys, the works. Turn it into football's NASCAR.
And they need to allow at least one franchise to be owned entirely by fans willing to chip in to own a real pro sports team.
If the UFL tries to simply be a pro football minor-league stocked with players not good enough for the NFL, it will fail. It will be the CBA -- not the D-League.
If, instead, the UFL recruits players -- college underclassmen -- not only good enough for the NFL, but draft-worthy NFL players who would otherwise be college stars, and markets themselves as THE place to see future NFL stars -- and develop future NFL stars -- it will win.
Through its own draft-eligibility policies, the NFL has left open an incredible opportunity for the start-up football league ready to take advantage of the NFL's heavy-handedness.
The "U" shouldn't stand for "United"; it should stand for "University."
(I previously wrote extensively about this in April. Click here for more.)