From Tim Tebow and Jonny Manziel battling for a place in the majors to four-point field goals, another league could work. But there are barriers in place
One of the great Australian athletes would prefer to extend his athletic career playing minor league football in the United States. Instead, it looks like hes heading to play rugby in France.
Jarryd Hayne, the one-time rugby league star and now former fourth-string running back for the San Francisco 49ers, told the New Zealand Herald last week that hed still be playing American football if there was a lower-tier league where he could get some in-game reps to more quickly learn the sport: I need to be getting game time and you just cant get that … because of the way [the NFL] works. The offense is only on for a certain amount of time and then theres five other running backs. If there was a second division team where I could get those mental reps of being on the field, 100% Id go back to the NFL. Im at the end of my career where I really [have] just got to get on the field.
In Haynes limited action on the field last season, he ran 17 times for 52 yards, had six catches for 27 yards and totaled 76 yards on eight punt returns. Impressive NFL numbers for a 27-year old who had never put on a football helmet before last spring, but not eye-popping enough for the 49ers to beg him to return when he chose rugby sevens over Chip Kelly back in May.
So an international sports star with a few years left in his prime, and whose athleticism and toughness had 49ers players raving a year ago in training camp, is forever done with Americas most popular sport because somehow Americas most popular sport only has only one league and one level.
It hasnt always been that way, of course. There have been second-tier football leagues and upstart wannabe competitors to the NFL for more than 30 years. There was the USFL, which fielded teams in the spring and summer from 1983 through 1985. It was created to take on the NFL and employed some big-name players including Jim Kelly, Herschel Walker and Doug Flutie. But the league folded in no small part due to mismanagement by the New Jersey Generals owners, a 37-year old Manhattan real estate developer by the name of Donald Trump. Today he has moved on to destroying a political party and, maybe soon, an entire nation.
In 1991 the NFL launched its own secondary league, the World League of American Football — later renamed NFL Europe — that operated on and off through 2007. Its best-known features were huge financial losses and uniforms that were ghastly even by 1990s standards.
Midway through the World Leagues run came Vince McMahons much-hyped XFL. It promised to counteract the corporate NFL with excitement, fun and ultra-violence. But TV ratings plummeted after 14 million watched the opener on NBC and the league folded after a single season. McMahon called the league a colossal failure, thereby proving He Hate Me prophetic.
The most recent foray into minor league football came in 2009 with the formation of the United Football League. It had only five teams and where the XFL attempted to be disruptive, the UFL sought to be as straight-laced as possible. It was so boring that a founding franchise was placed in Hartford, Connecticut. The UFL lasted just three years its games bouncing between the cable sports hinterlands of HDNet, Versus, Comcast SportsNet and CBS Sports Network and then was forgotten to history (if it was even remembered by anyone when it existed). The Canadian Football League and Arena Football League also continue to exist, but they are both decidedly not American football in their own ways and have never been heavy feeders of players to the NFL.
Yet for all the football league failures, its obvious why a new league comes along every few years backed by a fresh crop of investors: in the football-mad USA, where minor league baseball teams have existed for decades in most every town with more than two stoplights, it seems obvious that a single football league should be able to work. NFL preseason games featuring the kind of fourth-stringers, projects and marginal talents that would populate a minor league football team beat pennant chase MLB games in the ratings every August. So why is there nowhere for Hayne, and hundreds more like him, to play? Because the NFL hasnt decided to make money off of minor league football yet, and with college football providing the league with hundreds of trained and pre-marketed players every year free of charge, Roger Goodell and his band of merry capitalists have little impetus to launch a feeder league of their own. The World League operated under the aegis of the NFL, but it was tucked far away from American viewers and served primarily as a global marketing effort, not a true minor league.
If a lower-tier league is going to work, it will have to have the backing of the NFL and the league must believe that it will make NFL owners even richer. The best way to do that is to have a minor league mirror the NFL monster in every possible way.
Play the season not in the spring and summer, but in the fall when the audience is pre-conditioned to consume football and cant seem to get enough. Dont throw the minor league players on unaffiliated teams with weird names and bad uniforms; dress them in the same colors and uniforms that their big league team wears. We all know those preseason NFL games get ratings simply due to laundry loyalty, not quality of play. And then schedule the games on Tuesday evenings, as of now a football-free night, and air them on NFL network partner affiliates ESPN2, for example that are starving for content and desperate to placate their NFL masters with ever-more of the leagues product.
Watch as fans and media debate whether players who have big games on Tuesday night deserve a call-up for Sunday. Laugh at the prospect of struggling NFL quarterbacks getting demoted to the minors. And enjoy the entertainment of Hayne, Tim Tebow, German receiver prospects, maybe even a rehabilitated Johnny Manziel, trying to work their way onto an NFL roster. None of it would undermine the NCAAs role in providing pro-talent. And all the while the NFL can experiment at the lower level with banning kickoffs or instituting four-point field goals beyond the 50 yard-line or robot refs or whatever else the competition committee thinks up every year after a few beers.
A football minor league can work, but only if the NFL wants it to and only if Roger Goodell has the vision to make it happen. So Hayne should probably stay in rugby shape.