The NFL has tried a number of failed experiments overseas, beginning with the World League of American Football (WLAF) in 1989 and concluding with the folding of NFL Europe in 2007. Sure, Kurt Warner may never have received his shot in the NFL without his stint with the Amsterdam Admirals, and Jon Kitna would never have gotten a chance to start in the NFL without winning World Bowl MVP in 1997 with the Barcelona Dragons. Those two feel-good stories alone kept NFL Europe a few years longer than the interest level in Europe indicated.
In the final three years of the league, the NFL lost an estimated $30 million annually from the participation of NFL Europe. This occurred despite the short travel time and distance between the different European countries. A flight from Philadelphia to Seattle was farther than any European team had to travel within the continent. European fans slowly understood they watched a watered-down product of football, instead of the higher quality play currently displayed in the NFL.
Approximately 1,000 NFL players get dropped from their respective teams following the termination of preseason. Many stay with their respective teams through mini-camps, training camps, rigorous practices, and all through the meaningless games on the calendar before facing the inevitable reality of getting cut. In all, around 1700 players make NFL rosters on Opening Day, and another 320 players make the practice squad, meaning they can practice and train with the team but cannot suit up for any game action.
This leaves room for ample opportunity for an opportunity for a Developmental League. Here are 3 suggestions I have to expand the league without deterring the product:
Keep the Entire League in North America
Roger Goodell has long yearned for a team in Europe, most desirably London. From 2007, when NFL Europe folded, the NFL sent two teams to play one game a year overseas in Europe, taking away a home game for teams with lower revenue streams in their home stadiums. Starting last year and continuing this year, two games will be played annually in London through 2016, when the league will try to form a full-time team over there. That last part will cause all sorts of disasters for the league.
The NFL International Series has appealed to Europeans, selling out Wembley Stadium every game that has been played there, largely due to the scarcity of the games played in Europe. Just like the Barclays Premier League Preseason Tours of some popular teams in America, the NFL returns the favor by showcasing a quality product to Europeans. They should keep this trend going, playing annual games in Europe in an attempt to expand the football audience.
However, obstacles such as long travel (London to San Francisco flights can take up to 10 hours), large time zone differences (8 hour time difference between London and Pacific Coast), and constant requirement of passports, and the increase in costs for fans to travel to away games would cause many players to forcefully avoid playing for the European team. In addition, networks’ costs to send people to games would increase exponentially, and these networks already pay the NFL billions of dollars annually for the right to broadcast the sport. Creating 1-2 teams in Europe when the other 30 teams are in America would create unnecessary havoc for the league that they really do not need to enter.
Create a Developmental League in the Early Offseason
The NFL undergoes a fairly publicized “dead” period between the conclusion of the Super Bowl and the start of mini-camps. Team facilities for training are not used, as the first set of mandatory practices at team sites are in late May. That leaves almost four months of gaps when team facilities remain fairly vacant, especially compared to camps and the regular season.
Teams can use these facilities to permit released players who did not open the Opening Day roster to play competitive football against their peers. A shortened season played at smaller venues and capping the season at 8-10 games would provide meaningful hope to players still trying to make an NFL squad. They can receive actual game experience and use team facilities to showcase their talents and progress. Each NFL team can have a Developmental Affiliate, like the NBDL for basketball and AAA affiliate for baseball, which can give valuable game reps to borderline NFL players.
To cut costs, the league can play televised games at high school or college venues and essentially have football played more frequently throughout the year, instead of just the fall and winter. This would allow far greater competition into the ranks of the NFL and allow players who never received a real opportunity to make a good impression. Football has manpower, and the league can maximize their resources by adding a minor league.
Develop Football Programs Overseas
The rest of the world has never seen or grown up with football. Europe does not have the full set of resources – pads, training equipment for football, helmets, etc. – to accommodate a large audience. Thus, only developed countries with a strong economy like Germany, England, and Denmark can possibly afford the ridiculously high costs of playing football.
If the NFL really wants to grow the sport globally, it must aid in the efforts of providing different countries with the means to succeed. Just having a team there alone does little good, since fans who would watch the game in places like Europe simply could not follow the action. Football’s complexity and intricacies make the game so popular in America yet so difficult to understand to the casual viewer. People cannot just pick up football like they can with soccer and basketball.
If the league can develop a list of credible and accomplished coaches, equipment managers, and technologies to send to Europe, more youngsters could pick up the game and understand it there. This would cause a massive increase in interest, which would ultimately spark conversations to starting a domestic league within Europe.
Cricket’s Indian Premier League played all over India took off exceptionally quickly because of the vast attentiveness paid to the sport domestically. Ditto with soccer all over Europe, rugby in Australia, basketball in Europe, and baseball in Japan. When people can relate to the sport they watch, it will generate massive interest so the NFL must make serious efforts to actually encourage foreigners to play the sport if it desires to grow globally.