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D Day for the NFL?

Plans are afoot for an NFL (National Football League) developmental league. Barry Wilner explains how it could work, and why it could be a watershed for a variety of stakeholders in north America’s sports industry.

The NFL IS currently the only major professional team sports league in north America without a true minor league. That won’t be the case for long.

It won’t happen in the next year or two, but before the NFL’s current CBA (collective bargaining agreement) with the players’ union expires in 2021, professional American football will have a developmental league.

“There’s a true appetite for a developmental league,” says Troy Vincent, the NFL’s chief of football operations and a former all-star player. “After I spoke about it [in April 2014], I got more than 100 proposals on how to do it.”

What Vincent does not have is approval from the NFL ownership to put together such a league. In fact, it wasn’t even on the agenda at May’s owners meeting, and while it might not be a prime topic at the next owners gathering in October, it is being discussed within the NFL.

Not since NFL Europe, the offshoot of the World League of American Football, died in 2007 has the NFL had a place where players could develop skills in all areas. Some would argue that the college game serves the professionals in many ways by providing the talent, but the NFL has virtually no control over the universities and how they play the game. A developmental league would be different.

“There is a need for a developmental league from the player, coaching, scouting, officiating and even broadcasting standpoint,” says former NFL general manager Phil Savage, who now runs the college all-star Senior Bowl in January that showcases dozens of players who will be drafted in the spring. “There’s no question the World League and NFL Europe did some positive things for the game.”

Here’s what to look for when the NFL eventually puts its considerable weight – and even more considerable money – behind an NFL developmental league.

When would it take place?
Although there is some sentiment within professional American football to schedule minor league games to run concurrently with the NFL’s autumn and winter season, that’s highly unlikely. American football is nothing like hockey, basketball or soccer where teams play more than once a week, so movement between major and minor team rosters would be extremely limited under such a scenario.

Instead, the NFL developmental league will almost certainly be held in the spring.

“A league in the fall is really tough,” says Marc Ganis, president of Chicago-based consulting firm SportsCorp, a close observer of the business underpinning the NFL. “It is not like baseball, where teams can call up players every day from the minors. There would be lots of restrictions on player movement.

“You also have the colleges and high schools playing between September and early December, so when would you fit it in? There’s also the concern about saturation. The spring is the alternative, and an easier time on the calendar that is not busy.”

You have the colleges and high schools playing between September and early December, so when would you fit it in?

Where would it take place?
The NFL developmental league would not be international. In fact, it might not even be a national league, rather a collection of regional leagues.

Savage suggests regionalisation would be the owners’ course of choice, and many people working for NFL teams agree that would significantly keep costs down.

“I envisage some sort of developmental league in Florida, Texas or Arizona,” says Savage. “I see it as tightly-managed, not much travel, and I don’t think the size of the stadiums and crowds would matter. Bus trips, rather than expensive flights, would be more the ideal.”

Florida and Arizona have the right weather to host games deep in winter or early spring. Although it’s a big state, Florida also has at least half-a-dozen stadia that would be suitable. Texas has even more, although portions of the nation’s second-biggest state have unattractive weather.

How many teams would there be?
Savage pictures either six or eight teams as the perfect number. They would likely play an eight-game schedule, then have play-offs.

Should the NFL consider several regional leagues, it could place six clubs in Florida (Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Tampa, Orlando, Jacksonville, Gainesville, Tallahassee are potential sites). In Texas, cities such as Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin, College Station, Lubbock, Waco, El Paso and San Antonio would fit.

Who would the players be?
Players would come from several places, although you wouldn’t be seeing any stars in the NFL developmental league – except in rare circumstances when someone is coming off a significant injury and needs some game action.Back-ups, prospects and players on teams’ practice squads, plus undrafted rookies seeking to catch on with an NFL team, would populate the rosters.

“Clubs would love to go to the farm and see which tight ends, for example, are available,” says Savage. “They could find a guy who is ready to go and has been working and is in shape, not coming in off the street.”

Who would broadcast coverage?
In north America, the TV networks pretty much bow before commissioner Roger Goodell and his negotiating teams. Attracting TV interest – and significant broadcast rights-fees – will not be a problem.

“The networks have open time in the spring, and it’s an NFL product,” says Ganis. “There would be room on the networks for games on the weekend, and on the cable outlets on weeknights. There’s really a dearth of major sports on the weekends during the spring.

“I think all the networks with cable channels – CBS and CBSSports, Fox and Fox Sports 1, NBC and NBC Sports Network, and of course NFL Network – would be interested. And ESPN would likely want in on the mix, although it would need the rights the least.”

What is the most significant obstacle?
The players’ union. It would be concerned with: whether developmental league players are members of the union; medical benefits and coverage for players who get injured in the developmental league; workers’ compensation; effects on the length of career; effects on minimum salaries; impact on NFL rosters; and, naturally, the pay scale.

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