Baseball has many levels of “professional” competition. The majors, AAA, AA, A, Rookie leagues and more. The NHL has the AHL and ECHL. Basketball now has the D-League.
All of these minor leagues are directly affiliated with the major league through a farm system. While the D-League still has some growing up to do, many cities support minor league teams in the various sports like it’s their very own professional team and don’t treat like it’s a small-time team that no one cares about.
Here in Birmingham, we support the Barons and they have one of the nicest stadiums in all of the minor leagues, despite being two levels down in AA. I’ve seen crazy support for minor league teams at all levels and the AHL for hockey. In soccer, even though it works a little different, there is still plenty of support for lower level teams.
So why isn’t there anything for football?
Steps have been taken to create leagues in the past, but it’s never actually been by the NFL. It’s always someone trying to compete with the NFL and take them on head to head. The XFL is a prime example of this. It wasn’t about “let’s have another league that can feed talent to the NFL”, instead it was “let’s crush the NFL”. Same with the USFL. Canadian football and Arena football are a little different, but they are essentially a minor league system, they just has nothing to do with the NFL.
The latest attempts at trying to make new football leagues are essentially trying to follow more of a minor league format, recognizing that they aren’t ever going to be the NFL, so they will take it down a notch.
The first of those is the new “Spring League” that has popped up. While it initially was made to sound like it’s coming directly from the NFL, it actually has no connection to the league at all. You can take a look at the Spring League website and see that it clearly has nothing to do with the NFL or CFL but instead is just acting as a third party “camp” almost for players who are looking to get a little more game film and perhaps prove their worth for a spot in the league.
The league is going to be held at The Greenbrier in West Virginia, which is a practice site that has been used by NFL teams in the past. In order to be a part of it, played have to apply and pay a $350 application fee. That application is evaluated by the Spring League consultants, who the league says are all former NFL scounts, and then the players will be assigned a grade and the top grades at each position will be invited to the league. The games can be viewed by NFL, CFL and AFL employees.
Each player that participates receives housing and daily meals, that’s it. Then when it’s all said and done, the league will send player data, game film, and stats to all NFL teams. They say the games will be televised nationally, but I haven’t seen anything that says one way or the other who will actually carry it.
This league is perfect for players who are trying to get back into the swing of things. Names like Vince Young, Johnny Manziel, Trent Richardson and other big college names that didn’t quite make it in the pros for whatever reason are starting to get floated around as potential players who could utilize this league to get back into the NFL.
The other league that has been making headlines is approaching things a little differently. Instead of giving veteran players a chance to prove their worth again, the Pacific Pro League is going to allow players to play semi-professionally straight out of high school. Instead of giving players a second chance, “Pac Pro” as it’s being called is aiming to develop players who aren’t cut out for major college football and will develop players essentially the same way a school would.
Imagine if Last Chance U was instead a viable option itself to get to the pros, instead of basically an audition for a larger school to pick you up.
The Pac Pro league aims to offer an average salary of $50,000 and also tuition and books at a community college. Four teams of 50 players each on the West coast will play in a somewhat professional football environment that is untouched by the NCAA time restrictions and it’s sole purpose is to put the players in front of the eyes of coaches.
Both of these leagues have wisely decided that it’s not about competing with the NFL, but rather help breed talent for the league.
The question is, as it is with all of these other leagues, can they sustain themselves? Other minor league teams sustain themselves with corporate sponsors, ticket revenue, merchandising, and so on. The same kinds of things you can see with the major leagues. I can get the same experience at a Barons game that I would at a Braves game, and I’m probably going to pay about the same price for it too.
The issue never really seems to be about money at the beginning. There always has to be the initial funding to get it off the ground in the first place, but it’s the lack of interest and the poor quality of product that is put on that eventually kills leagues.
There are multiple cases of local leagues that aren’t paying players, or are paying very little, so they have been able to stay around longer. The APDFL (Amateur to Professional Developmental Football League) in Dothan is one, along with the GDFL (Gridiron Developmental Football League) that was founded in Memphis. There is also the Rivals Professional Football League in Detroit and Miami. All of those have been mildly successful because they have been on the local level compared to national.
But what if the NFL themselves actually jumped in and started something like this? A league that talent went to in order to develop themselves further. Coaches were there specifically to help groom talent for their main organization, and they played in small football stadiums in cities that might not could successfully house an NFL franchise, like Birmingham. The season was played during the spring, players could use it as a training ground for the next season.
Also, give them something to play for. A minor league championship. Do most people around here care that the Barons win or don’t win the Southern League championship? No, they just like the product that the Barons are putting on. The players might enjoy it, and the franchise might enjoy it, but they also enjoy being able to have Michael Jordan come up through their ranks while trying to work his way to the White Sox.
Why couldn’t football do the same thing that literally every other league is doing? Why couldn’t there be a developmental team at Legion Field (or the potential new UAB stadium), or the Liberty Bowl, or the Alamo Dome, or the Citrus Bowl?
Who knows how long the Pacific Pro League or the Spring League will be around? Who knows if we’ll ever see a minor league in football. But why not give it a shot?