How Realistic Is a New NFL Developmental League?

Ty SchalterNFL National Lead WriterJune 14, 2016

D?SSELDORF, GERMANY - MAY 07:  Quarterback Casey Bramlet of Hamburg pulls back to throw the ball under pressure from the Rhein defensive line during the NFL Europe match between Rhein Fire and Hamburg Sea  Devils at the LTU Arena on May 7, 2005 in Dusseldorf, Germany. (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)
Lars Baron/Getty Images

There's a giant, gaping hole in the middle of the football world.

NFL teams are desperate for young quarterbacks who break down defenses from under center, offensive linemen who drive-block from a three-point stance and linebackers who cover slot receivers as well as they fill run gaps.

The league has a crying need for young officials who have the game experience to work alongside the salty old pros—and who will eventually replace them. There's also an increasing gulf between college-track coaches and pro-track coaches. The college game is increasingly about wooing top recruits and finding ways to help their raw athleticism shine, not obsessively scheming for countless week-to-week matchup scenarios.

There's an easy way to fill the gap: a developmental league.

CBS Sports' Jason La Canfora recently reported a D-league could become a "front-burner issue" this year, almost a decade after NFL Europa folded in 2007. But while the need for such a league is arguably greater now than it was a decade ago, getting 32 owners to agree to float the cost of launching it could be a much harder sell than it was at the outset of the 1990s.

But NFL owners don't have a monopoly on football.

There's a parallel storm brewing on the players' side; they've got five years left on a collective bargaining agreement that locked in huge monetary concessions and reinforced commissioner Roger Goodell's punitive power over on- and off-field conduct.

CHARLOTTE, NC - SEPTEMBER 8:  Sean Gilbert #94 of the Carolina Panthers looks on during the game against the Baltimore Ravens on September 8, 2002 at Ericsson Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina.  The Panthers defeated the Ravens 10-7. (Photo by Craig Jo
Craig Jones/Getty Images

Meanwhile, Silicon Valley tech companies have been throwing millions at the NFL for live-streaming rights. In the age of digital streaming and DVRs, live sports are the only "must-see TV" left—and American audiences tune in to football like no other sport.

Former NFL veteran Sean Gilbert already floated the idea that's now hanging in the air: an alternative league, with NFL players, for which the groundwork is laid in advance of a lockout. By the time CBA renegotiations begin in earnest, the players could be set to walk away from the NFL.

But could any of this happen?

Of course, it has happened, many times. The NFL has twice folded an upstart rival league into itself: the All-America Football Conference in 1949 and the American Football League in 1970.

It almost happened in the mid-1980s with the USFL. That league was a spring/summer circuit founded as a direct threat to the NFL's dominance. The league signed three straight Heisman Trophy winners and attracted plenty of other top prospects and talents.

With a spring/summer schedule, the USFL had a chance to garner a massive audience. Financial mismanagement doomed the league, but the potential was obvious. Even the Canadian Football League saw an opportunity, with a wave of mid-'90s expansion into the U.S.

Money problems plagued other would-be contenders, from the mid-1970s' World Football League to the modern United Football League. Others have tried gimmicky variations on the game to garner attention, from the radically different Arena Football League (which had sustained success for decades and is still going) to the pro-wrestling-influenced XFL (which lasted just one year). 

For all their faults, these leagues all showcased countless former and future NFL players, coaches, officials and executives; just a few years ago, Washington head coach Jay Gruden was coaching the UFL's Florida Tuskers. But with all the gimmicks, rule changes, nomadic franchises and interleague squabbles, none of these competitors offered the same level of development as the NFL's own D-league.

William "Refrigerator" Perry in London
William "Refrigerator" Perry in LondonGary M. Prior/Getty Images

The World League of American Football was far from perfect when it launched in 1991.

There were weird team names and goofy jerseys. There were neophyte European crowds yawning at spectacular touchdowns and going crazy for the ensuing point-after attempts. But there were plenty of benefits for the league: no weird on-field gimmicks, seamless transition of roster rights and the introduction of the American game to the European continent.

The league stopped and restarted a couple of times, with its 1998 rebrand as "NFL Europe" bringing a sense of stability. Television deals in local countries and back home in the U.S. offset the generally disappointing attendance for a while.

American fans being able to flip on a real football game in the spring and see players attached to their favorite teams was a big draw; seeing NFLE veterans like Kurt Warner and Jake Delhomme lead their teams to the Super Bowl was another.

Kurt Warner quarterbacking the Amsterdam Admirals
Kurt Warner quarterbacking the Amsterdam AdmiralsSrdjan Petrovic/Associated Press/Associated Press

In the end, the continental support wasn't enough. Only German teams were consistently drawing real crowds, and in the league's final season, five of the six teams played in Germany. The league was losing around $30 million a season, per the Associated Press' Nesha Starcevic (via the Washington Post).

But in an age where $30 million is just Drew Brees' 2016 salary-cap charge, per Spotrac, doesn't the NFL need a league where his heir apparent, 2015 third-round pick Garrett Grayson, can go to throw a live pass?

Today's NFL owners place far less emphasis on the game's future and repeatedly maximize right-now dollars over growth and investment. But at some point, the opportunity cost of not developing young players, coaches and officials in the offseason has to outweigh the cost of doing business in Europe.

Fans of the Rhein Fire at the World Bowl
Fans of the Rhein Fire at the World BowlMARTIN MEISSNER/Associated Press

Moreover, what the WLAF/NFL Europe/NFL Europa achieved is still being measured, as The MMQB's Jenny Vrentas did, in widespread grassroots fandom. A handful of games in Wembley Stadium every year neither capitalizes on nor fosters the hundreds of amateur and semi-pro American-football teams in Europe or the millions of NFL fans across the pond.

They say nature abhors a vacuum, and there's a strong pull from every direction toward the hole NFL Europa's disappearance left in the world of football. It's clearly in the owners' best interests to figure out how to launch a sustainable D-league, and they have more than enough resources to pull it off.

The only question: Will some other entity see the opportunity and pull it off first?