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The score is 14-7 late in the second quarter and rather than focusing on the close game with massive playoff implications, my mind is fixated on how a commentating duo can be this bad. Russell Wilson just threw a Pick 6, and Booger McFarland shrewdly remarks how the Vikings normally aren’t on the receiving end of good luck. Just as I’m thinking he finally said something I agree with, he makes a comment about how heartbreaking the Minneapolis Miracle was for the Vikings. 

A national sports broadcaster just said, on air, that the most iconic moment for the Minnesota Vikings in recent memory went against them. 

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Joe Tessitore sits beside him in agreement, and his unnecessarily vociferous commentating style isn’t much better than the frequent and blatantly incorrect comments from his co-host. 

“And that’s a PERFECTLY EXECUTED SCREEN PASS GOOD FOR 3 YARDS!”

If you didn’t know anything about football you would think a simple dump off pass for minimal gain was the equivalent of throwing someone off the top rope.

This is the best ESPN can do? Monday Night Football ratings are consistently declining because of poor production value. Doesn’t the NFL want to step in and change how their product is being represented? 

No. They don’t care. Because it doesn’t matter. 

The NFL is getting complacent. They know at the end of the day ratings will rise and fall but the NFL is king, and people will time and time again tune in to watch the show. 

And with that we have found the root of the problem: The NFL knows it will never have competition. It doesn’t want competition. Even during the off-season the conversation among football fans isn’t, “Are you watching the XFL this weekend?”, its “Who do you think the Vikings are taking in the first round?” 

The XFL and the laundry list of deceased attempts at alternative football leagues don’t have staying power. Like a new toy on Christmas morning, the fans will play with it for a little while, but by mid-March it will be stuck under the couch as conversations about the NFL draft and free agency begin to heat up. 

So why don’t non-NFL football leagues ever succeed? 

It is because the NFL has a greed problem.

WHAT ACTUALLY WORKS

Let’s play a little guessing game.

What do billionaires Warren Buffet, Robert E. Rich Jr., and Herb Simon have in common? If you said: “Potential Orchids of Asia regulars” that’s a good guess, but not quite what I’m looking for here. 

No, the answer is they have sizable financial stakes in minor league baseball teams. Not because they’re baseball fanatics, but because minor league baseball teams are a great investment.

Let’s play another guessing game. How much do you think a minor league baseball team makes in revenue a year? Keep in mind that tickets are $7, attendance is less than 10,000 even for top teams, and organizations consistently promote 5 for 1 beer nights risking patrons getting blind drunk and pissing their pants in right field just to get people in the door and witness the product they trot out on the field. 

If I told you $15+ million a year in revenue with $6+ million in profit was realistic would you believe me? According to Forbes and USA Today, top teams are doing those types of numbers.

Consistent profitability is the reason so many billionaires can be seen investing in these clubs, and a major reason for this profitability is because minor league clubs have very few expenses thanks to the checkbook of the MLB. 

This is the key to why minor league teams have staying power despite middling attendance and an inferior product to major leagues: MLB clubs bankroll their AAA affiliates. 

The MLB parent clubs pay for all the player salaries, coach salaries, and half of all equipment costs. 

Why do the MLB teams do this? It is because they understand the immense importance of PLAYER DEVELOPMENT. 

They realize not every player coming out of college is ready to step in the box and face 100-mph fastballs every night. Rather than put a player in a horrible situation and completely draining their confidence (I’m looking at you, Josh Rosen), they let players develop at their own pace. 

The unexpected benefit of minor leagues is, of course, seeing players develop into legitimate prospects who weren’t expected to do anything. Players who were drafted as afterthoughts in late rounds can succeed and potentially turn into star players because teams gave them time, attention, and support to develop their skills and turn into stars. 

And it’s not only MLB, as both the NBA and the NHL have similar minor league structures. 

WHAT THIS HAS TO DO WITH THE NFL AND THE XFL

It relates because the NFL has the opportunity to do the exact same thing as the MLB, but they refuse and sit back and watch other football leagues like the XFL fail time and time again because they have no interest in competition. Not even from themselves.

The XFL is a fun little distraction, but once the shiny toy syndrome wears off and people realize they are watching players who drop routine screen passes, miss tackles, and vomit on the field, ratings will decline and stadiums will be empty. 

“It will be different this time around! There’s more media support and a better league owner!” Will it, though? Everyone was saying that about the AAF last year and it lasted eight weeks. I will agree the XFL does seem to have more support from national organizations, but this has been a futile attempt time and time again.

“All the players in the XFL played in college and at some point were involved in NFL training camps or practice squads!” Fair point, but how about you list all the 300+ yard passers and 100+ yard rushers from this past weekend? I’ll save you some time. The answer is zero.

The reality is the XFL features much inferior talent to the NFL and people will soon lose interest. People watch minor league baseball games because every one of the prospects have the opportunity to play in the MLB for their parent clubs if they perform well enough. The same cannot be said for the XFL.

The NFL could start a minor league that has staying power. A minor league system that features players that have legitimate potential to play in the NFL, not players that have bounced around practice squads for years.

One current league is filled with college and NFL practice squad washouts with a handful of players who might get invited to training camp, and one potential league is filled with NFL draft picks and prospects who have a legitimate chance of playing in the NFL for their parent team.

Which league would you rather watch? 

HOW IT COULD HAPPEN

Let’s pretend for a moment that the NFL cares about improving the game and innovating. Let’s pretend they have a realization that a minor league system would add additional revenue and drastically improve player development. Let’s pretend they acknowledge the current practice squad system is absolutely useless and a minor league system giving players in game experience against varying opponents would be a drastically better alternative for player growth and improvement.

How could it work?

As mentioned before, MLB teams pay for the salaries of minor league players and coaches in addition to half of equipment costs.

According to the current CBA, NFL practice squad players make a minimum yearly salary of $136,000. For simplicity’s sake, let’s round that number to $150,000 and have players and coaches make the same amount. 

A 53-man team with 20 coaches would incur a yearly salary bill of $10,950,000, and after adding in half equipment costs, let’s just call it $11 million a year for an NFL team to pay their minor league affiliate. League-wide, that would require the NFL to set aside $352 million yearly to pay the salaries and equipment costs for minor league affiliates. 

All profits could go back to the NFL or the parent club if the teams were league owned or owned by their parent club owners. This would help pay for the salary expense and increase the valuation of NFL teams and the league.

The NFL made $16 billion last year, and with their current TV deals expiring in 2021, they reportedly have their sights set on $25 billion a year in revenue. As of right now, they would need to set aside just 2% of their yearly revenue to form a minor league system, and if they achieve their goal of $25 billion a year in revenue in 2021, $352 million would be just over 1% of yearly profits.

Are you trying to tell me the NFL can’t set aside 1% of their yearly profits in an effort to drastically improve the game and the product they put on the field? 

That, my friends, is greedy. 

HOW IT HELPS THE PLAYERS AND THE LEAGUE

The current uselessness of the practice squad system is predicated by the fact that practice squad players are only allowed to do just that — practice.

They are not allowed to suit up for a game at any point in the season unless they are called up by the team due to an injury or similar factors. Therefore there are 320 players around the league (each team has 10 practice squad players) that are being shortchanged on their development.

Not just in football, but in any discipline, practicing against the same opponents time after time doesn’t improve overall skill, it just gets you better against that opponent.

In addition to improving their skills resulting in a full league of higher quality players, how many players barely missed out on the NFL because they weren’t quite good enough to make the team? 

Everyone in Minnesota knows the story of Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen.

Thielen went to a small Division II school and went largely unnoticed by NFL scouts during his college career. While job hunting after college and eventually getting a job offer as a dental supply sales rep, he decided to take one last crack at the NFL. He went to a small regional NFL draft combine on his own dime and ended up running a 4.45 40-yard dash. While still eventually going undrafted, that result sparked interest from the NFL and led to Thielen being invited to the Minnesota Vikings rookie camp. The rest is history, and since entering the league, he has amassed 4315 receiving yards and 25 touchdowns, been selected to the Pro-Bowl twice, and tied the NFL record for consecutive 100-yard receiving games with eight. 

The athletic director of Thielen’s former high school, Rob Nielsen, told The Washington Post: “If he goes to that combine and runs a 4.5, you never hear about Adam Thielen. That’s really the only thing that got him his shot.” 

Let that sink in for a moment. If the two-time Pro-Bowler had ran the 40-yard dash just .05 seconds slower that day, he would be selling dental equipment right now. 

In addition to Adam Thielen, notable players that were undrafted and initially flew under the radar include: Antonio Gates, Tony Romo, two-time MVP Kurt Warner, and Hall of Fame players (Vikings’ own) John Randle and (briefly Vikings’ own) Warren Moon. 

How many Adam Thielens or Kurt Warners or John Randles are out there that just barely missed their shot? How many players are out there that have the skill and talent to succeed in the NFL but came up just short when it counted? 

An expanded NFL league would give these types of players a shot while providing valuable development. Rookies have the opportunity to get consistent playing time against a variety of opponents instead of sitting on the bench on game day. Players get to achieve much better development, leading to higher quality players and level of competition league-wide

FINAL WORD

The NFL has an opportunity on its hands that is currently not being taken advantage of. Following the minor league model currently operated in the MLB, the NFL could improve the game to a drastic degree. Player development, increased profits, and increased overall valuations are all substantial reasons to develop a minor league system, but the commissioner has yet to entertain the idea.

Instead, they refuse to participate in non-NFL football leagues, leaving them out in the cold waiting for people to inevitably get tired of them. A non-NFL football league will always be second fiddle to anything NFL-related, and if history tells us anything, revenues will always decline to unsustainable levels.

Will the XFL succeed? That remains to be seen but the lack of NFL support paints a grim picture for a league with so many failed predecessors. 

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