Can College Sports Hold Ground, Despite Football's Development League Fun?

Can College Sports Hold Ground, Despite Football's Development League Fun?

Why you should care

The road to the NFL soon may not always start with the NCAA. 

For years, Kurt Warner’s story was the stuff that Hollywood biopics are made of. Competing for a spot on a crowded Green Bay Packers roster that featured future Hall of Famer Brett Favre and Heisman Trophy winner Ty Detmer, Warner, an unpolished, undrafted quarterback, was cut before the 1994 season and handed a one-way ticket back to Cedar Falls, Iowa. Soon the undrafted gunslinger was stocking grocery shelves for minimum wage while waiting for another NFL tryout that didn’t come. Instead, Warner became a star for the Arena Football League’s Iowa Barnstormers. Next came the Amsterdam Admirals in NFL Europe, where he led the league in touchdowns.

By 1999, Warner was starting for the St. Louis Rams, leading an offense dubbed “The Greatest Show on Turf” to the Rams’ first and only Super Bowl victory. On Aug. 5, 2017, the most acclaimed undrafted player in NFL history bookended his career with a Hall of Fame induction, recognition of his unique journey to stardom. Now, the path that Warner pioneered is emerging as an increasingly realistic career option for a new generation of football players.

As the NCAA grapples with a debate over whether it should pay student-athletes, a growing set of new professional minor leagues and alternative development leagues are shaping up as legitimate challengers for talent. The startup development league template was set by the NBA, where the G League has proved both innovative and effective, with 40 percent of current NBA players having spent time in the 17-year-old minor league. In Europe, soccer and other sports have for years had developmental leagues that have nurtured young players, independent of the higher education system. Football in America is finally joining the party.

Launched in 2017, the Spring League serves as a showcase for NFL and Canadian Football League scouts. Matchups are televised via Bleacher Report Live, Facebook Live and FloFootball; through two seasons, 33 participants have signed NFL or CFL contracts. But competition is brewing.

A developmental league would be a really smart thing for the sport.

Boomer Esiason, former Jets quarterback

In the summer of 2019, prominent sports agent Don Yee — who counts Tom Brady and Jimmy Garoppolo as clients — will launch the four-team Pacific Pro Football League. And in February 2019, a week after the Super Bowl, filmmaker Charlie Ebersol and former NFL general manager Bill Polian will launch the Alliance of American Football (AAF), a professional league with hopes of challenging the NFL. These are all platforms that could serve as crucial alternative funnels — other than the NCAA — to the NFL, suggest experts.

“So many guys can play in this league,” says CBS broadcaster Tony Romo, himself a former undrafted prospect turned four-time Pro Bowler. “The difference usually comes down to an injury or an opportunity. With a little more development, they can help an NFL team.”

The emergence of these alternative developmental leagues is a reflection of the “evolution of football,” Minnesota Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck said at Big Ten media day this summer. To Fleck, what’s most important about these leagues is that they could “give young people” opportunities to “play at the next level.”

Still, Fleck dismisses the idea that a developmental league will adequately prepare players for the NFL. “I want to make sure our players understand how hard it is to make it to the NFL from those leagues,” he says. “There’s a draft. The chances of going from somewhere — like a Kurt Warner–type story — that’s why it’s Kurt Warner. Everyone knows the story.”

In one sense, Fleck is right. Warner’s story astounds because, when his only options were Arena Football League and a failing NFL Europe, he flourished. But to many, that’s also precisely the point. Why not provide more routes to success? “It’s still so hard to step right in [to the NFL] and play, so a developmental league would be a really smart thing for the sport,” says former Jets quarterback Boomer Esiason. “Right now, there just aren’t enough spots for players who can play.”

For professional developmental leagues, minor league baseball has long been the standard. For decades, basketball and football — the NCAA’s two money minters — lacked an equivalent. For an athlete to make the NFL, he was forced to play three years of college football. And, as of 2005, prep basketball players must be one year removed from high school before entering the NBA draft. That lack of choice is an issue given that, in 2017, the 230 public universities with Division I athletics earned $10.4 billion. (The University of Texas was the most profitable, producing over $214 million in 2017, while Alabama A&M ranked 230th at $3.3 million.)

Last summer, the NBA significantly increased the earning potential for players in its developmental G League, raising monthly wages and allowing two players per organization to sign pro-rated “two-way contracts” with the big league clubs. Then, this October, the league went a step further — instituting $125,000 “select contracts” for elite prospects who want to skip college altogether. It’s a move that will challenge the NCAA’s monopoly on top talent. It’s also a signal to upcoming football leagues that they too can take on the NCAA’s monopoly.

To be sure, there have been attempts at launching alternative professional football leagues in the past. The now defunct United States Football League was an NFL rival for three seasons (1983–85), and Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation spinoff, the XFL, flamed out after one magnificent season spent soaring too close to the sun. But outside NFL Europe, which folded in 2007, the concept of developmental football leagues is a new one.

The Pacific Pro League’s Yee is ready to make a mark through disruption. That doesn’t mean simply providing a second chance for NFL castoffs. No, much like the G League, the Pacific Pro League will offer three-year contracts to high school stars looking to bypass college while training for the NFL. With Adidas signed on as a founding partner, the league may actually have a chance at long-term survival. The AAF, which will launch next year with eight teams, counts among its investors Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund and the Chernin Group, which owns Barstool Sports.

“At this juncture, it comes down to who has the deepest pockets,” says Esiason. “Who can sustain what is probably going to be several years of significant losses?”

For the moment, the NFL has no incentive to pick a side. Major NCAA football has proved the most direct route to the NFL, and the three-year rule ensures that its athletes are physically mature enough to meet expectations upon entering the NFL. But if a football minor league proves as successful as the G League, the NCAA could be in trouble. Especially if Yee or another minor league owner scores a deal with the NFL.

“That’s when it will affect the NCAA,” says Romo. “When real money is involved.”

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