Pro football training camps are well underway now, with fans holding high hopes for their teams and players hoping to position themselves for success with their respective squads.
Of course, those dreams don’t always come true. In a given year, most teams finish just above .500 at best and, sometimes, with a win or two at worst. For players, sometimes the dream ends before the first week of training camp is over.
That may be set to change. Mmmmmaybe.
This autumn, the Fall Experimental Football League will debut after the NFL season begins. It’s different from other full-field professional football leagues to pop up over the past 30 years, including the USFL and XFL. Reason being? It’s pushing to be a developmental league for the NFL, not a competitor.
On the surface and even a layer or two down from there, this is a move that makes sense. The NFL doesn’t have a development partner — call it what it is, a minor league — like the other major professional sports. Major League Baseball has a tier of minor leagues where players prove themselves and move on…or they don’t and drop out. The National Hockey League has the American Hockey League, and there are other minor leagues well established as well. The NBA has the D-League.
Not the NFL. Well, not officially…not after NFL Europe turned out to be nothing more than a busted play. Cynics would snicker college football is the NFL’s minor league, pay to everybody except the athletes and all, with the Canadian Football League and Arena League lower on the totem pole. Even the NFL’s practice squad system is ridiculed in some circles because there just aren’t the opportunities to play in game situations like there are in other levels.
FXFL founder Brian Woods wants to change that. Woods recognizes a void between the dream a lot of players have and the true chance they may have to compete with some of the top draft picks. His plan is to wait for NFL cuts, build 40-man rosters from the camp leftovers, pay them $1,250 a week, line up teams with rabid fan bases already in place (New York, Boston, Austin, Omaha, Orlando and Portland are already confirmed) and try not to rely on ad revenue to keep the league financially viable. He also has scheduled up to eight games per team on Wednesdays so as not to conflict with the NFL or college contests.
Woods has converts. Former NFL player Tommie Harris was impressed enough to say he wants to own a team. Harris told Sports Illustrated this year he realized many players who came to training camp didn’t have much of a chance to mean an NFL roster and he wants to help other players at least level the playing field.
NFL director of player operations Troy Vincent isn’t saying yes to the idea, but he isn’t saying no, either. He recognizes the need for some sort of developmental system, whether it be a minor league, academy or some other method.
Woods also has investors in his corner…or on his sideline, I guess. They believe a handful of strategically-placed teams and an $8 million total budget should be enough to germinate roots for a longstanding league. Some people believe an NFL-supported minor league could turn a profit by its third year of existence.
It’s a start, but Woods needs more. And he needs a sea change in how America supports football.
College football has grown to the point where it is nearly the NFL’s equal in fan support and general interest, and depending on the market, college football is more popular than its pro counterpart. Regardless, the next level gaining widespread support is high school football. Support of arena teams or semipro squads could best be categorized as highly, um, localized, with hundreds of diehards to build a fan base on.
To succeed, a football minor league needs to have regional interest. It needs fans to already an immediate connection with that next cut of players, the ones holding on to a dream. The plan is to give teams territorial rights to start that connection, so that’s a good start.
It also needs the product on the field to be high quality. If it isn’t, the league can have the perfect financial model and it won’t mean diddley squat.
Perhaps more so than the fiscal plan and the heartstrings, fans need to know they have a good product to watch, something entertaining to bring them back game after game, and they have a chance to see players they cheer for have a chance at the top level.
The FXFL looks like it’s in a good position to succeed, but it needs at least two, if not three solid seasons under its belt — financially and in the number of players making NFL rosters — to demonstrate its worth to the NFL. It also may need that amount of time, if not more, to prove to America minor league football can actually survive and thrive.