The subject of the NFL creating it's own farm system or developmental league has been batted around for years by the fans, the media and even by some NFL owners and general managers. Many people are and always have been uncomfortable with the idea that big time college football serves as the developmental/feeder/minor league for the NFL while all the time only the NFL and the colleges seem to profit from it in some way. It is more or less an unspoken arrangement that does not exist in any other sport. The issue with the NCAA for many is the fact that they are making millions on these players in exchange for a free degree (if the player does not get hurt and lose his scholarship) which in many cases is not even close to equatable to the value the actual player brings to the university but that is another story for another time.
The NBA of course get's the lions share of its talent directly from big time American college basketball but is also fed by the few really good kids that jump directly from high school and of course the foreign players, mostly from the European leagues that have become a big part of the NBA. The NBA also does not have the same restrictions on who may enter the draft, leading to many players jumping from the collegiate level to the pros after just one season. The NBA does have a minor league but it is more of a "hey go there and work on your skills over the summer" kind of thing. Some NBA teams will even draft a guy and then "suggest" that he take his talents to Europe for a year or two or more, until he is full on NBA ready. This at least allows the player to make a decent salary until he is ready to join the big club. The NHL and Major League Baseball both have vast, multilevel farm systems that survive and even thrive in many places across North America despite the fact that neither sport has the level of revenue stream that the NFL does.
The NFL's injury problems, most specifically those dealing with head trauma, have become a major topic of discussion in recent years among those that are involved in and those that follow the sport not to mention the subject of many media reports. The numbers and frequency of serious injury’s seem to go up each and every year, no doubt aided by the fact that players continue to only get bigger and faster as nutrition and training practices improve. To compound this already growing issue is the fact that now more and more players are being forced to sit out games due to the NFL's new emphasis on concussions and head injury's, prompted by both outside public and media pressure as well as massive lawsuits against the league in recent years. This has left many teams scrambling to to shuffle rosters or fill spots on the roster during game weeks following an injury in the previous game.
Would a system that would allow a team to develop players that they drafted or signed as free agents but still need some seasoning, who when need be can be called up for depth when injuries hit, not be a wise idea? What of the kids that can not qualify for college or just do not have the book smarts to stay in college? Do they not deserve a route outside of the traditional route of college for at least 3 years before being able to enter the NFL? I have to wonder through the years how many potential talents we never even knew about? How many kids were just not developed enough at the lower level? What about the kid that knew he had the football ability but not the book smarts coming out of high school? Does he not deserve a shot at developing his talents? What of the kids that made the jump to college ball late but maybe with another year or two of seasoning might have caught the eye of NFL scouts? Should there not be a route for these kids to hone their skills more?
Among the argument the detractors of the idea make is that the NFL can not make money off a minor league system or the NFL will lose money on it and for that reason alone it will never happen. I can see with the expense of running a team in Europe why that NFL owned league eventually did not work out but those same expenses would not extend to teams run over here. We have stadium's built for football that would be suitable in nearly every community of any size across America. The NFL would also not have to foot the bill for the entire roster and staff's housing and all other expenses (as was the case with NLF Europe) if operated in the US. Once again, baseball and hockey have done it forever and they somehow manage despite the MLB and NHL making far less money then the NFL. NFL Europe also was made up of a series of teams with players from various NFL teams scattered across the league. This gave the fans in the US no way to really identify with the team as theirs in some way. No allegiances were ever formed. My simple answer to this overall issue is ESPN and direct team assignments to the same minor league teams. Yep an arrangement with ESPN is all it would take to make this thing go financially and the rest, well I will get to that later...
ESPN would buy anything that they believed would give them any level of viewership, hell anything they can put on their many channels. Sure minor-league NFL ball will never be the draw that Sundays are for most football fans but for the die hard faithful, like the folks that show up by the tens of thousands to these blogs every single day, some of us would watch and follow and buy swag and get in to the whole thing. If ESPN will pay the entire expense to put on including the entire payout and all expenses for both teams for many of these bogus bowl games that they in many cases had a direct hand in creating then they will pay for an NFL branded product that people, even if its far fewer then a regular NFL game, will watch. I am sure like me that many of you would much sooner watch our minor league players in a game over some sort of half ass bowl game against two 6 and 6 college teams that we have never heard of. I could also see where local Fox Sports networks would love to carry a package that would cost them far less then the local NBA or MLB packages that many of them now carry but allow them to present an NFL branded product.
Of course on top of the TV money there are things like merchandise which the NFL already makes a ton of revenue on that the minor league teams could financially benefit from. There would also be the opportunity for all sorts of cross promotions between the minor league and the major league clubs. The players could also be paid a low amount based on position and would only receive NFL minimums for the weeks they are called up and those would be charged to the NFL club just like they are now when a player is signed for a week or two off the street. The players could be paid a small amount, well compared to what the NFL players make but enough that at 18 to 25 or so, it would be well worth it not only financially but worth it from the point of view of still having a legit shot at someday making it to the NFL. There are kids that spend far longer making less in minor league baseball just hoping for a shot at the big leagues.
To make it work the teams would basically just need to break even but I can see how these teams could easily turn a profit in the right markets. As far as the markets you could for each minor league team split between one AFC team and one NFC Team. For example Miami and Tampa could have a minor league team based in Orlando. Dallas and Houston could have a team in Austin. By placing the teams in cities like this it gives them a team with a real NFL tie and all of these places have stadiums that could easily hold these games. Do you not think that cities like Austin, Orlando, Portland, all known as great sports cities despite their size would not roll out the red carpet to bring something with the NFL logo on it to their city? These are all cities that are large enough to otherwise carry a pro franchise but maybe not a full NFL club. This of course would be attractive to the NFL as they are always looking to broaden their reach in any way possible. Why obsess on Europe when there are so many large markets here in the US and Canada with no NFL presence? These cities will care a lot more about the clout an NFL product brings to their city then say a Barcelona would.
As far as ownership of each team you could give 25% ownership of each minor-league club directly to each feeder club and then allow someone who does not currently own a piece of the NFL to buy in to the other 50% ownership of the team. I think this is something that 16 people with money would do to just have a part in ownership in the very high ranks of the NFL. In fact I suspect that there would be people lined up around the block to buy in to the very lucrative NFL.
I imagine that the NFL could keep the practice squad if they still wanted to and keep the system where any team can poach from that system but the minor league system would need to have some length of time that you could protect a player as your player. Perhaps 3 full seasons and then if another team wants to sing them to a contract for the NFL team then they can steal them from your minor league squad but only if the team that has his rights has the rights of first refusal to do so. This would also have to be coupled with some sort of guaranteed time on the NFL roster of the team that poached the player. This would also allow a player that is drafted, maybe plays a season or two at the NFL level to go back down a level for a while if they need to further hone their skills to remain a pro.
Each team could be given a number of players at each position that they could assign to each teams roster. Any additional positions would be filled by players signed off the street. Like with college ball these rosters could also be larger to accommodate enough players for each NFL club.
When would these games be played? I would think that Wednesday night's would work. A Wednesday evening game would give most clubs enough time following Sundays games to determine if they needed to call someone up for the following game due to an injury on the regular roster. Also as part of the anti trust exemption the NFL has agreed to not carry games on Fridays when high-school football is played or Saturdays during the college season. The concurrent seasons would also be necessary so as to not have any player in effect playing two season in one calendar year in the case that they go from the minor league roster to the NFL level roster in following seasons.
As a side, another thing that the NFL needs to consider and that will most likely happen long before building something as complicated as an entire minor-league system is expanding the game day rosters (active players on Sundays). With so many teams being hit by multiple injuries, some times in the same game, it should be all hands on deck. If you need to use all 3 quarterbacks or that extra running back, lineman, whatever then you should have the right to use them so long as they are part of the 53 man roster. It probably would not hurt to raise that 53 man roster to a 55 or 56 man roster while they are at it. Additionally the NFL can claim that by giving teams an option to rotate more players in to a game that they are trying to find ways to cut down on injuries which has become a legal imperative for them. The NFL can continue to weather the legal storm but they must exhibit that they are doing all they can within their power to protect the safety of the players.
I think the reason the NFL will eventually have to look at building a minor league system is that someone is going to sue them over the draft restrictions and the NFL is going to either have to settle out of court by eliminating the current 3 year restriction or have the entire system eliminated by the courts. The NFL will do all they can to hold on to the draft system. Why? Because for many NFL fans the draft and all that least up to it is as big a deal to them as the NFL season itself. Also the NFL strives for parity and the draft, assuming teams draft well, allows for this. An NFL with the majority of the teams alive near the end of the season is good for business and after all to them that's what this is...a business.
The NFL if nothing else is a giant marketing machine and they recognize the NFL draft and all the lead up to it as a huge part of what keeps fans engaged year round. Their long term plans are to make the NFL a year round sport for all fans and they are not going to give up a huge cog in that already rolling machine. Now if you have to admit kids right out of high school or after a year or two of college what do you do with those kids? You can conspire among all the other teams to never draft or sign any of them but the NFL knows better then to play that game as they hate going to court in cases that they know they are sure to lose. Eventually this will come to pass and they will have to have some way to develop these kids, the ones that show huge potential but just are too raw or two small to move on to the NFL yet.
What are your thoughts? Would you like to see this come to pass? Which of my ideas would you change? Where am I way off? What did I get right?
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