The Answer to Minor League Football
NOTE: This is a follow up to Jason MacKinnon’s piece earlier this month.
Everybody has their million-dollar idea. For the lucky few, their million-dollar idea actually turns into a million-dollar idea (or somebody else’s…I’m looking at you Winklevoss Twins). Since I don’t have the resources, or the capital for that matter, to make mine happen, I’m going to share it with you, the people. So many people will enjoy it; it’s not fair to keep it to myself anymore. So if you’re reading this, and like what you see, go ahead and Zuckerberg me. Just promise I get a producer credit in the ‘making of’ movie.
If you couldn’t tell by the headline, this involves minor league football. I first came up with it a few years ago, while attending the MLB Winter Meetings. You don’t realize until you see everyone brought together how important Minor League Baseball is to the MLB. Not only does it help the players hone their skills, everyone from managers, front office members, umpires, even broadcasters learn valuable lessons working their way up the proverbial ladder. As the NFL continue to struggle not just on the field but off, you have to wonder how much a teaching ground like MiLB could be beneficial to their product.
The obvious issue here is a minor league system implies players will play extra games that “don’t matter”. Baseball players will sometimes spend up to 5 years in their teams minor league system. So I got to thinking, is there a way to still have a secondary level of professional football where the games are still the main draw, and are not dwarfed by the NFL? And here it is: *Vince McMahon Voice* THIS…IS…THE DFL!
Lets start with the name. The Developmental Football League. It’s a stupid marketing ploy, but still important. Don’t advertise the league as ‘Minor’ or lesser than. Developmental. That focuses more on up-and-comers and the future of the game. The second, more obvious way to get the league out of the NFL shadows? Play in the spring. And by spring I really mean late winter. Capitalize on when people want football the most, right after the Super Bowl. You’d have a 9-week season, with each team playing 7 games, plus a bye, and then have a championship the final week. This would put the end of the season the second weekend in April, 2 weeks ahead of the NFL combine. That’s an important fact, but file it away for later, because first let’s talk about the teams that will be playing this schedule.
I wanted to keep the league small. You want to have enough concentrated talent that the games are still watchable. I’d start with 8 teams, so you have enough spots for players who need the work, but you’re not reaching too deep into the talent pool. You’d separate them into two divisions, East and West. Now remember, we’re starting in early February, so ideally the teams will be based in the south. I’d go after large college football markets with no NFL presence, especially since most of these players will be college stars trying to crack an NFL roster (more on that later). The college market gives you a stadium you can use, and you know there’s an interest in the game. For example, the four East teams would be a Tennessee team (Memphis/Knoxville), a Virginia team (Norfolk/Richmond) a Florida team (Tallahassee), and a team somewhere in Alabama or Mississippi, lets say Birmingham for now. The Western division would feature two Texas teams (Austin & San Antonio), a team in the OKC/Norman area, and a San Diego/southern California squad.
Next step, the players. The DFL will draw from three main talent pools. The first is NFL Free Agents. For every FA that knows he will have a deal on signing day, there are 10 who may not get a deal until the summer, if that. This league will be a way for them to prove they are worth a deal, and can sign before the draft when the season ends in April. Even beyond that, these games can act as a proving ground for players who are trying to come back after being out of the NFL for an extended period of time. Remember how many questions there were about Mike Vick and Plaxico Burress came back after their prison time? Throw them in for 8 games and teams know what they are dealing with. The same goes for players who are looking to come back after retiring (Brett Favre).
The second group of players is those who are already signed with a team, but on the roster bubble heading into the next season. If a team wants to see more out of a player who was on the practice squad, or did not get a lot of playing time on the 53-man roster, they can send that player to play in the DFL for further evaluation. Why would a player agree to play the extra 8 games if he already has a contract you ask? Well, he’s already on the roster bubble. If this is the difference between him making the final roster or not in July, most will play the extra games to keep their NFL career going.
The final group of players is what makes this league different than any attempted before, and this is why the DFL is tied in with college markets. The college game and pro game have never been as different as they’ve been in the last decade or so. Just off the top of your head, I bet you can think of 10 college football stars who either flamed out in the NFL (Tim Tebow), or had to change positions to stay relevant (Devin Gardner). The DFL would take out a lot of the guesswork, allowing these players to get experience in an NFL environment, either adjusting their game or learning a new position. Heck, the tight end position might end up being a list of all-conference power forwards from around college basketball. To be clear, players would only be allowed to play if they have already declared for the draft, and will only be paid a stipend (similar to what is done in some collegiate summer baseball leagues) so they remain draft eligible. Players would not be able to play in this league then return to college. During a time period where the NFL is mostly irrelevant, imagine the hype when some borderline 7th round pick comes out and throws for 450 yards and 3 touchdowns. “Is he legit?” “Can he duplicate the effort?” “How does it affect his draft stock?” Boom, the NFL is back in the headlines.
This is also why the college markets are so important. Instead of being drafted/signed into the DFL, the college players would be placed geographically near where they played NCAA ball. You tell Oklahoma fans these games may be their last chance to see Baker Mayfield play competitive ball, and they’ll turn out. Tell Alabama fans they get to watch Blake Sims before he goes off and becomes a cornerback in Australian arena football and they’ll be interested. The players get a chance to put themselves on NFL Scout’s radar before the combine, the fans get to continue watching some of their favorite college players, and the NFL gets publicity and storylines during what is traditionally a dead period.
The development doesn’t stop with the players either. Before each season, the NFL will pick 8 coordinators or positional coaches it identifies as possible head coaching candidates to be the head coaches of the DFL. Those 8 would then pick their staff from NFL or free agent coaches, having position coaches act as coordinators, assistant position coaches head their positions, etc. Everyone moves a step of the ladder; everyone gets a chance to get better. This also gives GMs and Owners an opportunity to evaluate candidates for potential job openings before hiring.
As a wise man once said, “but wait, there’s more!” One of the biggest issues with NFL officials is there are limited reps (it’s not really something you can get practice reps at) leading to inexperienced referees judging a game that is moving too fast for them. Having less experienced zebras in for DFL games would give them a chance to hone their skills, and give the NFL officiating department a chance to evaluate and see what officials can and can’t crack it in the fall. The league could even use this time to test new rules such as longer extra points or changing the spot on touchbacks. Really, the DFL would give the NFL numerous chances to improve its product without messing with what’s on the field.
Is all of this peaking your interest? Well, hopefully you are a network executive because that’s the final step of my master plan. The NFL will own 50% of this league, partnering up with a network that will pick up the games. Sound familiar? This is basically the XFL model the WWE and NBC tried in 2001. And while that league had plenty of problems, getting the games on-air and promoted wasn’t one of them. I’m no lawyer, but since the NFL already has deals with all 4 major networks, I can’t imagine it would be too difficult to work this into the mix with the highest bidder.
There you have it, the Developmental Football League business plan. Like it? Think you could make it better? Want to invest? Let me know on twitter @The_Real_Alex_B. Help me bring this million-dollar idea to fruition, so some day soon we’ll all be enjoying football from the Super Bowl through March Madness.
Written By: Alex Barth (@The_Real_Alex_B)