The National Basketball Association has its Developmental League. Major League Baseball has Minor League Baseball. The National Hockey League has the American Hockey League. NASCAR has its Nationwide Series.
The National Football League?
If you can see where I’m going then you would say that the NFL has NCAA Football as its feeder system, though that is not exactly the case. Besides the NFL, the other four major American sports organizations all have some sort of minor league system under their explicit control or at least in a business to business relationship expect for the NFL.
The NFL, the top sport in the United States — in part because of its un-argued place as America’s main obsession –, is able to live on the talent and dreams of young men coming from our nation’s colleges without having to pitch in a dime in to keep things going.
Making money like trees make leaves, the NFL features 23 teams that are worth at least $1 billion out of 32 in all, so money is not an issue. A majority of NFL owners and fans would likely say there is no reason to make a minor league system for the NFL, but I beg to differ. With various developments going on in all levels of football, I believe this is a prime time for the NFL to start its own 16-team minor league system. Below are my reasons why it should and could happen.
College Player Unions
Mark it down: Division 1 NCAA Football is about to be a thing of the past.
My prediction is the major football conferences (Pac-12, Big Ten, ACC, SEC, BIG 12, AAC and the independent University of Notre Dame) will dissolve from the NCAA and form their own set of standards and rules for their players and teams to abide by along with its own playoff and championship to take place at the end of each season, which will only be a short leap from the already-established College Football Playoff system that begins next season.
What’s become funny in recent days is that the upcoming playoff replacing its previous BCS system is not the NCAA’s biggest problem anymore. One quarterback who was just taking signals months ago for Northwestern — Kain Colter — has recently stepped up to change college football for good. Colter has quickly become the face of the struggle against the exploitation of the amateur athlete in America, standing with the newly formed College Athletes Players Association as its spokesman.
Not asking for its members to be paid, the CAPA — which is currently applying with the National Labor Relations Board for certification — is instead asking to be a part of formal talks dealing with certain benefits that many believe have been long overdue for college athletes, healthcare for example, as well as imaging rights and the like. Let’s not kid ourselves though, as part of collective bargaining, players will soon ask to be paid and that’s where the big problems will begin.
If college football players ask to be paid, then you know the basketball players will be next in line and then the snowball effect begins. A minor league system for the NFL will erase that issue with ease, at least for football. For the most part minor leaguers in other sports do get paid with salaries based on where they were selected in professional entry drafts. Players don’t roll around in 500 Mercedes Benz C Class cars at this level, but exploitation is not an issue, the fraudulent scam involving multi-million dollar salaries for college coaches and administrators while student-athletes often worry about borrowing for their next meal from certain “friends” would cease to exist.
Practice Makes Perfect/Earn Your Keep
As it stands today, each NFL team features players who don’t see the field on game day but are getting paid, those guys are called practice squad players. Practice squads can only have a maximum of eight players, so these players would likely be phased into any minor league system. No football team, major or minor, can survive with eight players so the NFL would need to add more draft rounds and un-drafted free agent signings to its mix. Currently, practice squad players take home an average of $24,000 a month before taxes, a good bit of coin for not sniffing the field at all. In my system, we’d put these guys to work.
In a 16-team minor league, each team at that level would act as a feeder to two NFL teams. Roster sizes would be set at 40 with a four-man inactive roster, giving each NFL team control of 22 men. At that average of 24k for each practice squad player, payroll for each team would be set at $1,056,000 a season, split between the two NFL teams being fed. I’m willing to bet that New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft has just over $500k in his sock drawer today. We’re not talking a huge investment for NFL teams to stock a minor roster, and this would let franchises to get a leg-up on grooming and molding players into what they want, calling up guys at their leisure to help contribute to the main roster. To a man we could see players enhanced by their minor league experience and really ready to shine, first on their lower level and then when they hit the big league.
Travel to the Parts Unknown
Everyone knows the NFL is all about making money, it does it better than any professional sports organization. From its strict fines for players’ small infractions to Personal Seating Licenses that rise steady and put season ticket holders at a crossroads before every season to simply getting boat loads of cash from television contracts and host cities of NFL events.
You’d have to figure a minor league system would definitely be another revenue stream for the League. Across the country the NFL could give little pieces of itself and its identity to smaller towns where actual pro football organizations will never be feasible. With all the major cities in the nation already under their belt (except L.A.), the NFL could enhance its already well-established visibility and allegiances held by sports fans in areas where pro football once lived or where they desperately want it to live. Here’s a quick rundown of places I think would be suitable to host the NFL’s minor league franchises — 16 cities based on location, population size and other intangibles along with the controlling NFL franchises they would feed:
• Gary, Indiana — Chicago Bears & Indianapolis Colts: Let’s be honest, Gary needs a lot of help economically. According to city-data.com, The median income for a household in Gary is a little less than $25,000. Gary currently hosts an independent minor league baseball team in the SouthShore Rail Cats. Sitting a reasonable distance from both Chicago and Indy, Gary could be an epicenter for fan involvement for both teams and that could cause a groundswell in economic activity in that area.
• Des Moines, Iowa — Minnesota Vikings & Green Bay Packers: The city of Des Moines is the largest in Iowa with a population of over 200,000 and has a great history of supporting minor league teams in the NBDL (Iowa Energy) and the MLB (Iowa Cubs). Plus two major college football conferences have representatives nearby in the University of Iowa and Iowa State. I think they would love some semi-pro football here.
• Toronto, Ontario, Canada — Buffalo Bills & Detroit Lions: The Bills have played a recent series of regular season games in the T.Dot and there have been rumors of that franchise moving there, but nothing has happened. A minor franchise could be a safe way for the NFL to enter what is now the fourth-largest city in North America. The NFL already knows that football fans exist there and beyond being close to Buffalo it is also only four hours from Detroit. Perfect fit all the way around.
• Toledo, Ohio — Cleveland Browns & Cincinnati Bengals: Here is another city that could use an economic boost in the arm. Households in Toledo bring in $31,000 on average according to city-data, well below the state of Ohio median of $45,000. Plus, Toledo should help fan the flames of this intrastate rivalry.
• Altoona, Pennsylvania — Pittsburgh Steelers & Philadelphia Eagles: Altoona is right in the middle of the steel town and Philly. There is NFL history in the town as well. In 1992, the Pittsburgh Steelers played an intrasquad scrimmage there and the town is one of the most famous in one of the most famous proving grounds of young football players — Western Pennsylvania. Altoona is also home to the Curve, a AA affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
• Hartford, Connecticut — New England Patriots & New York Giants: You want small-town love, then look no further than Hartford, which would be a perfect battle field between New York, Boston and each team’s passionate fan bases. Hartford’s population is over 124,000 and the city has its fair share of professional sports history. Early NFL franchise the Hartford Blues played one season there in 1929, also from 1979 to 1997, the Hartford Whalers of the NHL was its pride and joy. Jobs would be big for this city where the median income is a little less than $30,000 according to city-data.
• Wilmington, Delaware — New York Jets & Baltimore Ravens: This isn’t the biggest market but the Advanced-A level Kansas City Royals affiliate Wilmington Blue Rocks call this area home. An NFL minor league team in Wilmington would surely bring fans from neighboring New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland. You’re getting four states in one on this deal, NFL. Not bad.
• Virginia Beach, Virginia — Washington Redskins & Carolina Panthers: The folks in Virginia Beach are doing alright for themselves economically, they even flirted with the Sacramento Kings about relocation not too long ago, and that in part is the reason this city should be picked for an NFL minor league franchise. Time and time again Virginia Beach has tried to get some pro sport to get involved in the area but nothing has been even close to the area besides the ABA’s Virginia Squires, which went defunct just before the NBA-ABA merger. This could be the perfect time for this market, which has a history of rooting both for the Redskins and the Panthers.
• Orlando, Florida — Tampa Bay Buccaneers & Miami Dolphins: Already a pro city in basketball and now soccer, with Disney and Mickey Mouse sprinkled on top. In other words, mo money, mo money, mo money!! If you are the NFL, why not hop on that money train and get you some. You could even get Disney (and through them, ESPN) involved somehow. This is a no brainer.
• Birmingham, Alabama — Atlanta Falcons & Tennessee Titans: Some true southern hospitality would be available here in arguably the most football-crazy state. Though it may be reasonable to argue that there is no room for any other football team to capture the imagination here beyond those in Tuscaloosa and Auburn, I’d be willing to bet against that. If anything you could stock a Birmingham franchise with un-drafted Tide and Tigers and watch the locals go crazy. With a population well over 200,000 and a median income of only $29,000 according to city-data, the NFL could really give this city and state a push in the right direction and a taste of something its never had before.
• Gulfport, Mississippi — New Orleans Saints & Jacksonville Jaguars: This is a beautiful coastal city, but its hard for anyone who hasn’t been there to know — a lot of nothing is happening there. The NFL could take over with little effort. There are Saints fans for sure in Mississippi, so the NFL wouldn’t have to work too hard to drum up interest.
• Springfield, Missouri — St. Louis Rams & Kansas City Chiefs: The Show Me State has shown the love for minor league teams in many sports — baseball, arena football, soccer, and basketball on top of their pro interests in football, baseball and hockey. I’m sure the residents of Springfield could use a little help on the income as well. The average household brings in about $34,000 according to city-data, compared to the state average of $45,000.
• San Antonio, Texas — Dallas Cowboys & Houston Texans: The NBA doesn’t have to be the only major sports league with a lock on all three major cities in Texas. We all know the citizens love their sports here and they love their football, the Spurs have also helped bring a culture of excellence that could be co-opted. It may have helped the two-time arena league champion San Antonio Talons.
• Honolulu, Hawaii — Arizona Cardinals & San Diego Chargers: Ok … OK, I know Honolulu doesn’t need much help attracting people but this is an area with a football culture due to the University of Hawaii and, of course, it hosting the Pro Bowl through most of its history. Why not reward the island for that?.
• Sacramento, California — San Francisco 49’ers & Oakland Raiders: The Bay Area residents would have to learn how to live with cows here. Sac-town survived movement attempts by the Kings but it has hosted the franchise since the 1980s and will for the foreseeable future. The California state capital also has minor league baseball, football, basketball, soccer and tennis. Mayor Kevin Johnson is a sporting legend in his own right and he led the fight to keep the Kings, I would think he’d love to add another sports feather to his cap.
• Boise, Idaho — Denver Broncos & Seattle Seahawks: Good ol’ Boise — the biggest city of Idaho and its capital. Why wouldn’t they want to start a connection with the two franchises from Super Bowl XLVIII? Boise is home to minor league baseball, hockey and basketball franchises right now and the winning ways of their Boise State Broncos have made the area a collegiate football hotbed bathed in blue. The NFL can move in on that wave.
Let’s Spread The Wealth
NFL owners are among the wealthiest people in America, if not the world. One main reason the NFL is so profitable is because of its even sharing of revenue between teams. It’s interesting that the majority of the NFL owners are very conservative politically but benefit from a socialist-styled system, but that’s a different topic for another day.
Most of the host cities for these minor league teams I propose are in small towns across the country, towns that have been hit hard by recessions past and present and could use an economic boost, there is no surer business to be involved in America than professional football. If the top-echelon teams are off-limits to only the richest municipalities, there is still a chance for thousands of jobs and ancillary opportunities to be created in smaller places.
These teams would create thousands of jobs in construction for new stadiums and other facilities along with positions in retail, service jobs and food and hospitality as well as the dozens of positions in each franchise itself. Also, this type of expansion would galvanize and identify new fan bases, which definitely means more money for the NFL.
NFL Fans Want More Football
One thing that’s certain is that in sports, the NFL is king and the more its fans can be involved with it, the happier they will be.
The final step to my plan is the scheduling and broadcasting for minor league football. Kicking off two weeks after the NFL season begins, the minor league could keep jonesin’ gridiron addicts happy during each week of the regular season until the final two weeks of the season, by which time everyone is wrapped up in playoff fever. The opening two week period would give the guys who didn’t make the main roster in training camp time to heal up and make their way to the host cities as they begin their work to try to get called up later in the season. Let’s set the schedule at 12 games, featuring six games at home and on the road with one bye week, all current NFL rules would be enforced in these games.
Once upon a time football was only played on Sundays, and then came Monday Night Football. Later on came Thursday Night Football and some select Saturdays late in the season. With more encroachment into each day, multiple television outlets have bid over the rights to broadcast NFL games and get the big ratings and advertising rates that come with it. Everyone and their mama will try to get down with these minor league games.
The NFL Network would be an obvious home for these games as would the league’s website, if they want to fully get into the 21st century, I say let’s go a different route. Currently the NBA’s D-League is streamed live on YouTube, fitting for the NBA, which has long been on the cutting edge when it comes to the internet and social media. Its time the NFL get on board. I’m sure native hosting sites like YouTube, Vimeo, and streaming arms of cable and broadcasting giants like Watch ESPN would make great homes for these games with lucrative opportunities for revenue that doesn’t have to rely on traditional ads.
So there you have it. A NFL minor league system that would work. This would bring in new revenue streams to the NFL, its brand of football would be more connected with less obvious areas of the country (creating and bringing jobs to cities and families struggling economically) and best of all, it would simply bring more football to Americans. The minor league system would also push the NFL to develop its own talent without passive-aggressively allowing the NCAA to exploit young workers, doing dirty work it hasn’t had to do. This system can be done, it should be done.