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A new pro football league? We have been down this road before

Developmental league to begin in 2018

Since the National Football League (NFL) began operations in 1920, there have been a multitude of rival professional football leagues that have come and gone. Recently, it was announced that yet another would begin operations.

“Pacific Pro Football League” is an association designed to pay its players, but also on the drawing board are very specific conditions and purpose: to give a certain category of player the opportunity that currently does not exist.

Presently, there were six pro football leagues in operation for 2016. This new league states its focus is not on the players who continue to play that cannot make the roster of an NFL, Canadian Football League (CFL) or an Arena Football club. Of course, the NFL pays the most followed by the CFL and then Arena. Players who compete in the latter two leagues still have the hopes and dreams of being an NFL player one day.

Other leagues in business in 2016 in the United States: Indoor Football League (10 teams), Champions Indoor Football (12 teams), American Indoor Football (17 teams), and in 2017 the newly-formed National Arena League (8 teams).

This new league, also called “Pac Pro,” is the brainchild of former Fox Sports executive Jeff Husvar, previous Giants and Broncos receiver Ed McCaffrey and sports agent Donald Yee, whose star client is Tom Brady. Apparently, the three believe that the NFL is devoid of a developmental league designed for younger players. Their focus would be players just out of high school until their first year of eligibility for the NFL draft. In a nutshell - players who skip college. But this league would also allow athletes who have played some college or junior college and offers a salary plus instruction.

Pac Pro would first become a four-team entity with all teams based in Southern California. Rosters would be capped at 50 players per team and maintained by the league and not individual owners. Each player would be paid the same amount regardless of position: $50,000, plus an off-season tuition reimbursement at a community college, 401k and also workman’s comp. The season would begin in the summer of 2018, include six games with two playoff contests. The end of the season would be right before the NFL camp schedule allowing all players the opportunity to advance.

Over the years there has been talk about the NFL developing their own farm system with developing player talent at the forefront. In an April 2014 interview, NFL executive Troy Vincent stated the league had a need for a developmental league that they could access. But Pac Pro would not be an entity associated with the NFL. The area this league would focus would be primarily teaching athletes various pro systems and techniques required to compete at the next echelon.

The league’s advisory board consists of Super Bowl coach Mike Shanahan, Fox analyst Mike Pereira, ESPN’s Adam Schefter, longtime NFL executive Jim Steeg and Steve Schmidt, a political strategist.

The project has a very bold and opportunistic approach. The first design is for each club to be staffed by 16 coaches, eight of which would be full-time. A pro-style offense would be installed with the rule that every player on the roster will play each and every game. Since college football is not an official “NFL minor league” system, these teams would focus on developing players to get ready for the pro game. The league would be used as a training vehicle for not only players, but coaches as well. Potential players would have an alternative that doesn’t gauge itself on studying or other academic requirements.

Even the stadium options are being considered on the down low. In the beginning, teams will play in smaller stadiums. If the league is successful, there are already options for expansion into Northern California all the way up the western seaboard. Games at this time will not be televised, but that option is also open. Basically this new league is expanding the pro football universe and allowing more players to get paid, to bypass the grinds of college football, and their athletes to be seen as well as scouted.

The first four cities have not been named yet, nor have the team names, colors or uniforms.

Others Have Tried and Failed

Why now? And why this concept of non-college athletes? Pac Pro feels that there are certain athletes who would flourish without having to dive into books instead of concentrating on the game of football.

The idea is not to compete with college football nor for its players. The same goes for the NFL. In fact, the idea is to get players ready for the professional game.

But there have been other leagues that have done the same – and failed.

Recently, the United Football League (UFL) set sail into the pro football landscape with what was announced as eight clubs but began the 2009 season with only four. At one point, they briefly had as many as six. This league basically occupied the same concepts: not compete with the NFL, a vehicle to develop players, become an “unofficial minor league” for the NFL, house rosters of players who were not ready for the elder league, and to not compete with college football for players.

They played their games on Friday nights so that their schedule would not compete with college or NFL games. In fact, the UFL had all of their teams in non-NFL cities such as Omaha, Orlando and Hartford for the sole purpose of not conflicting directly with the NFL. However, the schedule was played in the fall instead of using a spring league format as was used in the past.

And the UFL had expansion aspirations as well with cities earmarked like Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Birmingham, Memphis, Mexico City, Louisville and Austin, to name a few. The UFL consequently folded midway through its fourth season with games left on the schedule due to financial difficulties. During its almost four year duration, teams folded and relocated almost every season bringing uncertainty and distrust from fans.

In the end, the “developmental” aspect was almost non-existent. Many a former NFL player, such as Jeff Garcia, Ahman Green, J.P. Losman, Tatum Bell, Todd Sauerbrun, Jay Alford (former Giant), Quintin Demps, Simeon Rice, Daunte Culpepper and Peter Warrick, to name a few, were roster members of a league originally designed to develop young talent. It was also the last hurrah for Maurice Clarett. Current NFL players Steven Hauschka, Josh McCown and Graham Gano also played in this league.

Just as Pac Pro has announced utilizing all West Coast teams, the UFL had a club in Sacramento and Las Vegas, and one planned for San Jose and Portland. By the spring of 2013, 78 players, four assistant coaches and two head coaches had filed a lawsuit because they did not get paid all that was coming to them. It was reported that more than $10 million in debt had accrued.

The United States Football League (USFL) from 1983-1985 was also supposed to become a developmental league of sorts not in competition with the NFL. That plan was squashed almost immediately as USFL team owners signed big contracts to several college superstars such as Herschel Walker, Mike Rozier and Kelvin Bryant. The USFL played a spring season so that it would not conflict with the NFL nor college football. Next, the league began signing away current NFL stars to futures contracts that allowed them to become members of a USFL team the second their existing NFL contract had expired. Suddenly, they had become a rival of the NFL. After the 1985 season, the league announced plans to switch to a fall schedule, filed a lawsuit against the NFL, won the suit and was awarded only $3 in damages. Because USFL teams had been using the same stadiums as NFL clubs, the fall schedule excluded them from being tenants and would have to resort to smaller venues or outdated facilities. In the end, this league also folded.

The Regional Football League was designed to be a place where players could still play-for-pay and not give up their dream of an NFL career. Rosters contained 37 players with $30,000-$65,000 salaries. The focus was for developmental players who were cut from NFL rosters, college players and semi-pro athletes. The RFL only lasted one season in 1999. Stars included Andre Ware, Thad Busby, Bjorn Nittmo and Ron Paulus.

Along the same time as the UFL was about to begin practices, another new developmental league had been in the works since 2007. The “All American Football League” (AAFL) was designed to play strictly in college towns in a spring format using the same college stadiums on Saturday nights and become a developing league. Their hopes were to extend the college brand to a pro football league. Requirements for the AAFL included that all players have a college degree and each club would only sign athletes from each particular state. A six-team league was earmarked with Florida, Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee, Michigan and Texas the first franchises to compete.

The plans for the AAFL were to pay players $50,000 for a 10-game season. The first season was scheduled for 2007 and then set back to 2008. A player draft was held in January 2008. In March of 2008, the league’s website announced another postponement until the 2009 season. Every player already signed and designated to specific AAFL teams was suddenly released. No other info was ever circulated and in the spring of 2013 the website had closed. No games were ever played.

Beginning in 1991, the NFL backed a developmental league they called the “World League of American Football.” Its mission was two-fold: to develop current NFL players who were backups to get significant playing time, and to bring the American game to the masses in Europe. It became a spring format in which all NFL clubs could “designate” players who met a certain criteria. In the beginning there were franchises located across the United States and Canada as well as three European teams. Former Cowboys executive Tex Schramm was named president.

In 1998 the league’s moniker was changed to “NFL Europe” with all six clubs based in Europe such as Berlin, Frankfurt and Amsterdam. As part of the format, each club was required to sign at least seven “local” athletes to a roster spot. In its final season of 2007, the entity once again changed its name to “NFL Europa.” Many a future NFL star would play in this league and develop their skills against similar talent. Kurt Warner, Jake Delhomme, Adam Vinatieri, Lawrence Phillips, David Akers, Jon Kitna, Tim Hasselbeck and Eric Crouch are some of the highlighted players. Also, current Redskins head coach Jay Gruden played QB for the Barcelona Dragons.

After 15 seasons (mainly in Europe), the NFL shut the league down. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell stated that the developmental league had a financial strain on the league as a whole and that they would instead concentrate on pre-season and regular season games outside the U.S. Reportedly, this NFL project was losing more than $30 million per year. The league was utilized by every NFL club to test young players and give them significant playing time. In the end, however, it was just another failed attempt for a developmental league.

In 2011 the “Stars Football League” began as a developmental league. It initially granted eight franchises, but began the four with one strictly a traveling club. After the 2013 season, the league ceased operations.

The “Fall Experimental Football League” (FXFL) had every aspiration of becoming an official feeder league system for the NFL. Beginning in 2013, the league emphasized experimental rules and player development. This league introduced the 35-yard extra point try that the NFL and the Canadian Football League has since adopted. Each club had a 40-player roster that made $1,000 a game. Players was housed by a host family instead of the teams supplying accommodations. ESPN3 was awarded broadcast rights. Five teams began the 2014 season with another club added for 2015. After only two seasons, again financial restraints closed down the league.

What’s next?

Any player who signs a Pro Pac contract would also forfeit any college football eligibility. The new league feels like there are thousands of players who would qualify for this opportunity, so filling rosters should not become an issue.

And Pro Pac would have zero issues with becoming the NFL’s minor league system. Currently, it is understood that all three levels of college football are the “unofficial” minor leagues for the NFL. That is why you don’t see games scheduled on Saturdays until the college season is completed. The NCAA and the NFL have a very good working relationship and don’t step on each other’s wallets. So far this seems to work out for both.

In the past, there have been several minor leagues directly associated with the NFL such as the Continental Football League from 1965-1969. Then there was the World League of American Football/NFL Europe which allowed clubs to assign their younger and substitute rostered players into a regular playing environment in order to receive additional playing time. The NFL has also invested into the Canadian Football League and the Arena League. But college football is its greatest resource for fresh, young players.

Is it possible Pac Pro can become a viable self-sustaining league? Certainly. If this league looks at the financial issues that plagued the UFL and FXFL and stick to their own business plan, this might become an attractive alternative to many a football player who seek a different path. The league’s goals must be modest and the funding must be dealt with up front instead of on the backend when most complications persist.

Perhaps a pro developmental association that is devoid of any aspect of the college game may work as a feeder league. As of right now, however, the NCAA is the NFL’s free farm system. If this new league doesn’t need to strive to make certain revenue plateaus and can get a decent gate, it should be able to sustain itself. But just like in the past, losing money every season is what killed off many attempt at another pro football league.

It is presumed a certainty that any new league would lose money its first two seasons and not become cost-effective until a minimum of its third year; although the UFL became the poster child of not being profitable beyond those boundaries.

Pac Pro would not be necessarily developing several hundred players, but instead be giving several hundred players an opportunity to continue their dream.