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Coming soon: A professional developmental football league that just may succeed

May 23, 2014 -- 6:00am

By Tony Grossi | ESPNCleveland.com

 

The Morning Kickoff …

Its time has come: The next great innovation in the NFL?

How about a developmental football league?

A league for undrafted rookies to fall back on after final NFL roster cuts and to keep in football shape, physically and mentally. A league to develop out-of-work coaches and young referees. A league to experiment with rules changes and technological advancements.

This is one of those ideas that is so obvious that you wonder why it hasn’t been done. Money, is the answer. NFL owners, awash in billions of dollars of revenue, don’t want to finance a developmental league because it generates cost, not revenue.

That’s what did in the NFL Europe League. Operating for nine years under different names, the European league was disbanded in 2007 because owners tired of paying the bills. The benefits of the league were lauded by football operations executives. But they couldn’t convince the owners to keep investing in it.

An NFL developmental league needed a new business model.

Brian Woods, a sports attorney, believes he has created it.

Coming this fall: Woods, 40, is the founder and creator of the FXFL – the Fall Experimental Football League. So far, there is no affiliation with or cooperation from the NFL. But Woods predicts that will change when the NFL sees the FXFL operate this fall.

“There’s no mystery there needs to be a developmental league,” Woods said. “I think the challenging part is coming up with a business model and design it properly. I’ve spent a lot of time researching this. I’ve looked closely at the NBA Developmental League and at Minor League Baseball. We’ve come a long way in a very short period of time. We’re financially backed and ready to launch this fall.”

Based in New York, Woods said the FXFL will debut in September with teams in six markets – New York, Orlando, Omaha, Portland, Boston and Memphis or San Antonio.

The league itself will own and operate two of the teams, but Woods said the others have financial backing from some “high-profile investors.” Franchise fees were set at $500,000. Team names and owners will be announced within two weeks, Woods said.

“A lot of people are questioning our ability to launch in a short timeframe. Some of our partners are going to be minor league baseball teams. They have an infra-structure in place, good marketing teams, built-in customer base. We’re able to mobilize much quicker than most people think,” Woods said.

“The league is not predicated on TV revenue. But I will tell you I am in very good discussions with some major networks about televising the season. If the NFL were involved, it would be slam dunk. We’re going to have a TV partner wrapped up within two weeks.”

Woods said the FXFL will have six teams playing a six-game schedule from September to November. Games will be Wednesday nights.

Woods believes NFL Europe, while well-intentioned, failed for obvious reasons.

“That was not very cost-effective,” he said. “They played in big venues, and shipped the players out (overseas). I think the best structure is a developmental league that plays in the fall, not in the spring. This again is the benefit – play on weeknights, use a cost-containment model, play in minor league baseball venues.”

The future: In April, sports lawyer and agent Donald Yee speculated in an essay in the Washington Post about college football in the Year 2020 morphing into a lucrative professional developmental league in which college-age players share in the billions of dollars of revenue generated by their games.

Woods’ league would be a scaled-down version of those post-collegiate players, mostly undrafted but also drafted ones, who work the six weeks of NFL training camp and then are released. Hundreds of these players routinely retreat to their homes – some take on jobs – and wait for their phones to ring when NFL teams need reinforcements later in the year. Or they resurface the following year and try it all over again.

Woods said, “Forty percent of the (college) juniors that declared for the NFL draft this year were undrafted. Because of the new rookie contract structure and the college landscape changing, now more than ever there’s a need for a developmental league.”

Because of injury attrition, most NFL teams come looking for players in the second half of the NFL season. That’s why Woods wants the FXFL season to start in September and end in November – to feed the NFL need for players late in its season. The theory is that players discarded after training camp will be more developed playing in the FXFL than they would be merely working out on their own.

Woods said FXFL teams will have rosters of 40 players and coaching staffs will consist of a head coach and six assistants. Players would receive between $1,000 and $1,250 a game, which is more than the Arena Football League rate of about $850.

The league would develop players, coaches and officials and also experiment with innovations the NFL has discussed.

For instance, Woods said the league would not use the traditional point-after touchdown and is considering eliminating the punt altogether, for safety and competitive reasons.

“I personally feel if you take the punt away you’d have sustained drives and promote scoring,” Woods said. “And it would make the game safer. The majority of injuries occur on punts and kickoffs. So we are looking to experiment.”

Woods said the league would have “a technological component” that would make the game quicker and also engage fans interactively. He wouldn’t elaborate.

Because of the business model and the benefits to the NFL, Woods feels the FXFL will succeed. He envisions ticket prices at $30 and hopes for attendance in the 5,000 to 6,000 range.

“Our long-term goal, obviously, is to have an official recognition from the NFL,” Woods said. “I think everyone sees a need for this.”

 

Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com.

He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 46 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Use the hashtag #HeyTony on Twitter or email your “Hey Tony” questions to tgrossi@goodkarmabrands.com

Follow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi

 

 

 

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