This week, ESPN’s Kevin Seifert wrote a convincing think-piece about the need for the NFL to create a developmental league along the lines of Minor League Baseball or the NBA’s D-League. It’s an idea, Seifert argues, whose time has come: While the NCAA does a fine job of bridging the gap between high school football and the professional league, the rate of attrition for football players and the complexity of the game are such that a professional league for teams to work with—and get game experience for—their younger prospects makes a lot of sense.
For seven years, pro football executives have fumed, fretted and lobbied. They’ve watched the elimination of their developmental league intersect with new restrictions on offseason training and the changing landscape of their feeder system. They’ve seen some drop-off in game readiness for young players and are concerned about the day when the industry is fundamentally impacted by these coinciding factors.
Relief may soon be upon them. Interviews with a cross section of executives, analysts and observers suggest the landscape is ripe for an NFL-sanctioned developmental league to replace NFL Europe, which was shuttered in 2007. Interested parties envision a domestic incarnation modeled roughly after the NBA’s D-League — perhaps complemented by a training “academy” — that capitalizes on the thirst for live programming from a growing number of all-sports cable channels.
NFL Europe was a bold concept that represents just how ambitious the NFL can be when exploring new ideas: A minor league for professional football makes sense, so why not put it in Europe, where nobody outside of the Germans even likes the game?
The ideas being discussed by both Seifert and the NFL executives he speaks to would be a bit less ambitious, with proposals suggesting that the natural home for every team in the NFL’s D-League would be the football-mad South. Former Cleveland Browns GM Phil Savage suggests a league based out of Florida and Arizona, MLB Spring Training-style, while former Indianapolis Colts GM Bill Polian prefers “a southern-based league mirroring the SEC where players could largely bus to games.”
But the proposal that would bring football to San Antonio is the one on the table from Medal Of Honor Bowl Executive Director Brian Woods, who has a full business plan for the FXFL—the Fall Experimental Football League—that would put franchises in six cities with Minor League Baseball teams. And the home of the San Antonio Missions could be the home of the, say, San Antonio Sidearms as early as this year.
Woods said he wants the FXFL — Fall Experimental Football League — to play a six- to eight-game schedule in New York; Boston; Omaha, Nebraska; Orlando, Florida; Portland, Oregon; and either San Antonio, Texas, or Memphis, Tennessee. Teams would form 40-man rosters after NFL cuts in September, limiting themselves to players who are no more than two years removed from college, and stage games on Wednesday nights beginning in October.
Woods declined to detail the financing of the league but said it would own two franchises outright and have licensing/franchise agreements with minor league baseball teams in the other four cities. Players would be paid between $1,000 and $1,250 per week, Woods said, and total expenses for the entire season would be between $8 million and $9 million.
“From a business standpoint,” Woods said, “cost containment is a top priority. We have to be very transparent in our presentation. We’re a developmental league. We’re not a commercial league operating under the guise of a developmental league.
The FXFL differs from the now-defunct, United Football League, and other recent attempts to form alternate professional leagues to the NFL, in that it the primary goal is not to attract an audience or to give NFL’s aging stars one last chance to play—FXFL players would be able to move up to the NFL with no delay or penalty. That alone might make it an appealing prospect for training camp cuts who might otherwise want to continue waiting for a practice squad spot to open up.
While the FXFL plans to play this fall, it hasn’t officially settled the question of San Antonio or Memphis. But regardless of the prospects of success for that league, or if the NFL will opt to follow the suggestions of ESPN, Savage, and Polian and create their own developmental league, San Antonio deserves to be in the discussion for where the team should play.
As our own Jason Cohen notes in a recent post on the Spurs,
San Antonio, the seventh most populous city in America and the second most populous city in Texas, only has one pro franchise. The city has been used as a negotiating pawn for several NFL and baseball teams that never came, so its sports fans have to root for football and baseball teams from Dallas or Houston.
The city isn’t on the NFL’s radar for relocation or the doubtful prospect of league expansion—Los Angeles, Toronto, and London are all well ahead of it on the queue—but a D-League team in San Antonio makes as much sense as, well, a D-League for the NFL in general. San Antonio sports fans have proven themselves, quietly and over the years, to be among the best in the entire country. And San Antonio is as football-mad a city as any in Texas, with fans who would presumably be pretty interested in having quality games to attend in the Spurs-free parts of the fall and winter. Given the state’s powerhouse high school and college teams, it’s also likely that a fair number of the players who populate a minor league football team would be Texas natives, and the appeal of being able to hone their craft with a developmental team closer to home might be the difference between a bubble player without an immediate role in the NFL choosing to stick around football for another year, rather than sell cars or lay drywall back home.
All of these ideas will shake out over the coming months and years. It’s possible that the FXFL will have San Antonio football fans in a stadium four months from now, but it’s also possible that whatever form the NFL’s eventual replacement for NFL Europe takes will still be a few seasons coming. But regardless, if minor league football is an idea whose time has come—and ESPN makes a strong argument that it is—then stationing a team in San Antonio is equally obvious.