Last week, the United Football League announced that the rest of the 2012 season will be cancelled. Players and agents had been vocal in their displeasure with the league’s timeliness in paying weekly salaries, so the decision comes as no surprise. The league announced that all players will be paid in full for their services, but agent David Canter says that he won’t be holding his breath.
The UFL was in the middle of its fourth season and had just signed a television deal with CBS Sports Network for the 2012 season. Former New York Giants head coach Jim Fassel was perhaps the biggest name still associated with the league as the head coach of the Las Vegas Locomotives. The UFL had big aspirations making some noise when the league was formed in 2009, but ultimately it never had a chance to compete with the NFL. In fact, it never even had a chance to put the smallest of dents in the NFL.
The fold of the UFL raises the question, what’s next for player development in the NFL? The UFL was never truly embraced as a feeder system for the NFL as the NFL never took any interest in it. With NFL profits seemingly maxed out for the next couple of years, could an NFL-subsidized minor leagues of sorts be a new source of league revenue?
Under the current system, college football essentially serves as the primary feeder into the NFL. The big conferences have huge television rights deals and college football is a lucrative business. There is also an NFL rule stating that all players must be three years removed from high school before playing in the league. If the rule was changed to handle a minor league, would it be profitable?
It’s tough to say. Major League Baseball has the most successful league subsidized minor league system, but there are no lucrative television deals. The National Basketball Association is in a similar situation with the NBA Development League. But the NFL has popularity that both the MLB and NBA do not. If there’s a league that could do it though, it is the NFL.
I think it’s too easy to say that the NFL would have a dominant minor league system with a big television deal. With the model of the two previously mentioned minor leagues, it’s pretty clear that they aren’t at the top of the fans viewing priority. I wonder if the NFL could wrap in hypothetical minor league games with their television contracts given the leverage that they have over networks. At the same time I also wonder how issues like player safety and the short term nature of careers would affect a minor league.
Another development to watch will be the revival of the United States Football League (USFL). There are reports of plans in place to bring back to once successful USFL as a true minor league to the NFL. Of course the league will not be subsidized by the NFL, but if there is no plan of competing with the NFL directly, NFL subsidies cannot be ruled out in the future.
The final answer on an NFL minor league system is a confusing one. I’m not too sure that the NFL would take on such a risky investment given their sustained profitability. Also, the league, as far as I’ve read, seems to have little interest in development. The success of the college game has been proven and is currently working for the NFL (even if the college game itself is broken). The topic of development leagues will be an interesting one to keep track of into the future for the NFL, but not one to hold your breath over. For now, keep an eye out for leagues popping up here and there and keep track of the possible USFL return. The only thing that seems definite is if you’re an investor, stay away.