A couple of weeks ago, we noted that the FXFL, the developmental football league that hoped to launch in the fall, was targeting San Antonio for one of its home cities. As with many such arrangements, things changed quickly—and as of today, the official announcement has come down that the Texas home for the FXFL will be Austin.
A press release announced that the team will be owned by Tommie Harris and Eric Bassey—two former NFL players with Texas roots—and that the six-game season will take place in six cities throughout the US.
The Fall Experimental Football League, which has no affiliation with the NFL, plans to play six games in October and November in six U.S. cities. Harris and Bassey will own the Austin franchise, with other teams to be located in the New York and Boston areas; Omaha, Nebraska; Portland, Oregon; and a city in Florida yet to be determined.
The Austin franchise may end up being a bit of a misnomer—according to Harris and league commissioner Brian Woods, who talked to Texas Monthly about the plans for the league yesterday, the yet-to-be-determined stadium for the team will be in “the greater Austin area,” which could mean Cedar Park, Round Rock, or another suburb with more accessible venues. But regardless of the TBAs, the team—which will be called the Texas Outlaws—has big plans for what it might be able to accomplish here.
“We want to be a developmental league in every sense of the world,” Woods explains, stressing that the success of the league won’t be determined by the number of tickets that it sells, but by the number of players it manages to send to the NFL during the course of its season. “We’re not a commercial league operating under the guise of a developmental league, but a true developmental league. A league that’s going to develop players, coaches, prospective NFL officials, given that we’re going to be utilizing NFL rules, and also maybe serve as a testing ground for potential rule revisions.”
All of that will come after the team manages to recruit its players, but that’s not something that Woods or Harris are concerned about. “There’s more football talent and qualified coaches than there are positions to put these guys to work right now,” Woods says, stressing that the bulk of the rosters are going to be assembled close to the start of league play, as they plan to recruit NFL roster cuts made after the September 1 deadline.
Those players aren’t going to get the chance to get rich playing in the FXFL—Woods says that salaries are going to be $1,000 a game—but Harris, who spent seven seasons with the Chicago Bears, and one with the San Diego Chargers, before lingering knee injuries ended his career, says that for the players he’s known throughout his career, that’s more than enough.
“The reason I locked into this is because I had an opportunity to play ball,” he says. “I had an opportunity to see great talent come along that was cut before they even had a chance to show their talent off. What’s greater than to have another league where you can put this kid on ice, then call him up when he’s ready? They can go somewhere, get six games, and get fresh on their talent. I want to be judged by how many guys you develop and put back in the league.”
That’s a fine ambition, and Harris sounds very sincere about offering young players an opportunity—but this is still a league that is still asking players to put their bodies on the line for a few thousand dollars. But it’s not like they have a lot of other options.
“A minor league baseball player, some of those guys are making $1,200 a month. An NBA D-League player makes $17,500 for the entire season,” Woods says. “These guys have nothing—they don’t have the CFL [after roster cuts], the Arena Football League season is over, and the Arena Football League right now pays $850 a game, no housing, no meal program. We’re paying $1,000 a game. A lot of these guys haven’t even finished their degrees. What job opportunities do these guys have? Maybe this guy doesn’t want to go start a job yet. Maybe he wants to pursue his dream. I’ve talked to tons and tons of agents and they’ve said, ‘Brian, if you paid our guys $500 a game, they’d come play for you right now.’ They have nothing. This is the idea. It’s not a league where young players are going to get rich, but it’ll offer an opportunity make a better than livable wage and continue to develop.”
Woods may come off to some as though his eye is on the bottom line, but he and Harris are full of compassion—and very high hopes.
“I’m thinking 50 percent of my guys will make it back into the pros,” Harris says. “I really take this to heart when we say ‘development league.’ I’m not just talking about the person as a physical player. I’m talking about as a kid. I remember sitting down every day by my locker and hearing these kids who just wanted an opportunity to play. You would even see kids who are better than the kids who were there before them, but they paid ‘em, and so this kid stands no chance. This kid gets dressed every day, knowing he never had a chance. His name was never even mentioned. Now you have a league where these guys can get film, compete, and feel like stars. It’s a place where you can keep a player’s moral high, and develop him. I got a great team around me that we’re building down here. I can’t wait to get started, and to see the smiles on these guys’ faces to know that someone cares. Like, ‘Wow, where did this come from? I was about to go work back at Best Buy.'”
Harris’ point is well-taken: The end of football is a brutal, fast-acting thing that is hard for athletes to prepare for, and given the choice to put your body on the line for a limited amount of cash and still just a small chance at something bigger, or to take a job working a regular job, the opportunity to play may well be worth more than the money. If half of Harris’ players actually do make it into the NFL, of course, that’ll be more than enough proof that Harris’ ambitions are well-founded. But even if they don’t, letting go of a dream is hard, and the opportunity to keep it alive for at least one more short season is something that a lot of players deserve.
The Outlaws will probably be an easy group of guys to root for. Of course, there is another group of football players in the Austin area who go by that name, though Woods—who noted that the Austin Outlaws of the Women’s Football Alliance, who will spend Saturday night at Dragon Stadium in Round Rock, taking on the Minnesota Machine in the second round of their league’s playoffs, don’t have a registered trademark on the name—seems unconcerned about that. It’s possible that Austin is big enough for two groups of Outlaws, anyway. What it may not be big enough for, though, is all of the talent that Woods and Harris see being attracted to the team.
“The way our player allocation is being structured, each team will have territorial rights to their area,” Woods explains. “It was a priority for us in year one to be in Texas, and to be in Florida. Even a kid who went to OU, but who’s from Texas, could get a big following there in Austin. We want to be in the community immediately. That doesn’t mean bringing in veteran NFL players—that means bringing in players that have some type of tie to the local market. A good portion of the Outlaws are going to be made from local players. The Texas and Florida teams, I think, are going to do very well. We’re going to have to turn a lot of kids away—they’re going to have to play for other teams, because those teams are going to fill up quickly with those types of players.”
With all of the TBDs left to be filled in—the location of the Austin-area stadium, the hometown of the Florida-based team, the recruitment of the players, the establishment of any sort of official relationship with the NFL—the FXFL sounds like it’s winging it just a little bit here. Woods, Harris, and the rest of the ownership behind the league have big dreams, though, which is one important thing they have in common with the players they’ll be employing.
(Photo: Tommie Harris with current Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli. AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)