by Mike Mitchell
Minor league football doesn’t work. Developmental leagues don’t work. A farm system football league won’t generate mass interest. By mere design, they go against the competitive league structure that fans clamor for. Could that come off as a blanket statement? Perhaps, but let’s delve into this a little deeper.
By default, any pro football league that is not the NFL can be considered as one of their unofficial developmental leagues. From the CFL to the upcoming AAF and XFL. No affiliation needed, just reality. In truth, the NFL already has a developmental league. It’s called NCAA College Football.
The NFL itself once had a spring pro football league that was designed to be a farm system for them. First called The World League of American Football, then shut down and re-branded as NFL Europe before closing up shop as NFL Europa in 2007. This league had NFL money backing it, players allocated from the NFL to play in it and yet it lost hundreds of millions of dollars. In truth, it was quality football and produced good to very good players. Most football fans know the story of Kurt Warner and Adam Vinatieri. The league even had decent exposure on ABC, FOX and The NFL Network among others. It just never captured the interest of football fans on a large scale.
So why didn’t it work? It’s simple, the games and the teams. If the fans don’t have a rooting interest in either, you don’t have a profitable league. So, what went wrong? The most important element of any sporting event is getting people to care about the outcome of the games. It’s not rocket science. It comes down to, “Do you care who wins or loses?”
In NFL Europe, the outcomes weren’t important. The games were often times treated like NFL preseason games. Quarterbacks would rotate in and out. Other positional players would share playing time. All in an effort to get players on game film for evaluation. That’s great for coaches, players and NFL teams but from a spectator standpoint, the games itself lose all meaning. That’s what you get from a developmental league. The viewing public sees the games as not being important because the actual outcomes are not. Any league that promotes itself as a minor league, it will in turn be treated as such.
Why has the CFL worked and survived all this time? Besides the fact that it is in another country. It’s because of the fans and the league itself. The CFL presents its own brand of pro football. It’s not a carbon copy or a lesser minor league version of the NFL. It has its own endearing qualities. The league has tradition and fan bases that are passionate and care about their teams winning and losing. They have the recipe for a league with a true competitive structure.
There’s nothing wrong with minor league sports. In fact, there is a lot to love about them. It provides players, coaches, officials and team employees, the opportunity to keep their dream of working in the big leagues alive. Great for those people but when it comes to appealing to the mass public, you come off as just that minor.
As for the AAF, under Bill Polian’s guidance and influence their main goal is to become a feeder system/developmental league for The NFL. That’s his end game. The rebirth of NFLE in the states. Get the NFL to endorse the AAF and back the league financially. Other leagues have had this vision and idea. The defunct UFL after looking like they would attempt to capitalize on the NFL’s labor issues, entertained the possibility of becoming a developmental league. The defunct FXFL run by Brian Woods positioned themselves with the premise of being just that for the NFL. Woods closed up shop and now runs The Spring League. A different yet more cost-effective way of giving prospective pro players a shot to go to the NFL or get back into the league.
The new spring pro-football leagues, the XFL and AAF, are going to provide great opportunity for prospective pro players. Considering the fact that in 2017, despite the fact over 16,000 college football players were eligible for the NFL draft, only 253 players were drafted. Some of the undrafted made their way to the league as college free agents, but we are talking about over 15,000 college football players with no chance to become pro-football players.
This is all good but positioning and promoting yourself as a minor developmental league is the kiss of death. What football personnel want is a developmental league, what football fans want is a strong alternative to the NFL and for something to fill the void when the NFL and NCAA seasons have ended. That’s the whole point of a spring pro football league. To appeal to die-hard football fans when there is NO FOOTBALL.
It’s what the original USFL had going for it, before it was mismanaged greatly on several fronts. The USFL had its own unique feel and felt like a legit pro sports league. There were fans who embraced the teams and players and speak glowingly of that fan feel for the league to this very day, three decades later.
How does a league achieve that type of fan connection? You do it by taking what the NFL and NCAA does well and try to make it better. You take what they don’t do well and improve upon it. You present an exciting new brand of football that innovates on the field and on the broadcast level. Present the league as being something major, exciting and on the cutting edge. Make fans care about the teams and games.
The XFL and AAF have both taken public stances where they are not adversarial to the NFL. This is a good thing. You don’t want to alienate the die-hard NFL fans and supporters. They are the consumers that you are targeting after all. You also don’t want to get the mainstream sports media against you. The original XFL riled up supporters by taking shots at the NFL and boasted about bringing smash-mouth football back. There were some things that they innovated like broadcasting interviews with players to the stadium live, the sky cam and the “bubba cam” but the XFL made a lot of enemies with their renegade league approach. There is still joy to this day from people that they failed in 2001.
Both The AAF and XFL have to take the approach of trying to present the best possible football leagues that they can. It’s the only chance they have to be taken seriously. On the field and off. If in any way, they come off as minor league. They will be ignored. Best case scenario? If the AAF becomes the NFL’s version of the NBA’s Gatorade League. (Yes, that’s what it’s called now). Then, they will exist but who will even notice or care.