Are you ready for some football?
In the spring?
The folks who are putting together Major League Football not only hope so, they believe their developmental league will be just the right tonic in the down days for the NFL.
Well, there really are no down days anymore for the big boys, what with the combine and free agency and all kinds of meetings and scandals and the draft and minicamps. None of that occurs on the field with scoreboards and standings, though, and the MLFB hopes to fill that void.
"There are the people who need their football fix and go into withdrawal from February to July," jokes Dean Dalton, a former NFL assistant coach and now the senior vice president and in charge of football operations for the planned league. "We have to feed that need.
"You will find there is a need for a spring football league, a professional league that will assist in development of players both personally and as football players. There's a little bit of a gap right now for young men who want to pursue their dreams, get an opportunity they might have missed, or get a second chance."
Other leagues have cropped up with the same idea and either flopped or were an artistic but not financial success. Remember, Kurt Warner was a starter in NFL Europe before its demise.
The MLFB, which is not affiliated with the NFL or with any college conferences, is targeting eight cities for its first season, when each team will play 10 games and four will make the playoffs. It has letters of intent from six cities to act as hosts — Akron, Ohio; Eugene, Oregon; Birmingham, Alabama; Orlando, Florida; Little Rock, Arkansas; Norfolk, Virginia — and is in discussions with five others for the final locations, with games likely to be played in college stadiums.
Dalton says the idea of locating franchises in "emerging markets" is critical to the success of Major League Football, which will be a single entity operation that will be publicly traded; the league will own all of the teams and player contracts.
"Think back to the USFL when it played in the spring," he says. "They were successful and what they did prove was that for some of their markets, the NFL was able to parlay into future markets: Phoenix, Jacksonville and Charlotte. Cities that proved their worth, great football cities. And playing in new emerging great football cities is our goal."
Every active player except for one "franchise player" will be paid $2,500 a game on average. The franchise player would be a year-round employee of MLFB and would help with promotions in the offseason. There will be a salary cap.
The rosters will be filled with players who didn't make the cut coming out of NFL training camps, never were signed anywhere when they came out of school, or weren't able to play in college. Each of the eight franchises will draft those players following the NFL's guidelines: at least three years out of high school with no more college eligibility or not attending college any longer.
One twist: the first 40 picks for each club will come in a territorial draft. So players that a potential Birmingham team might want from Alabama and Auburn would be its property immediately. Same for Akron and Ohio State, Eugene and Oregon or Oregon State, etc.
"We'll have 80 players per roster in training camp," Dalton says. "So in Year 1, we have to draft all 80 players; there's no roster coming back. We are starting from scratch.
"We'll also have free agency. There's no age limit or ceiling, but we do want to minimize how many years they can play in the league, not longer than four years. At a certain point in time, it becomes diminishing returns, and Major League Football will create new opportunities for more players."
Coaches and general managers for all eight franchises already have been hired, but the league is not ready to identify them. Many will be familiar names to football fans.
Dalton says the league is in negotiations for both national and local broadcast rights.
Another twist: MLFB plans to assist the players in a unionizing process, and will reach out to the NFL Players Association for guidance "as we are a league that is focused on players and player health, safety and wellness," Dalton says.
And yet more innovations are planned:
—Working with players on DNA testing so they know their individual genetic map. That can help with diet and improved performance, for example.
—More full-sequence DNA testing so players and teams' medical staffs will know the susceptibility to any head trauma from concussions.
—Neurologists on-site during training camp to address any potential concussion situations.
—Using new technologies to aid officiating.
The appeal of MLFB early on might be more to college football fans who recognize the names of players that those who follow only the pro game almost certainly won't know. That might not be a bad thing given the cities the league is targeting for franchises.
"I remember being in conversations about ... a spring league to develop players not quite NFL ready, but with nowhere else to go," Dalton says. "Players cut in August are working out and waiting by the phone to get that call, but they are not getting better as football players, and that call may never come. The only way to get better is to be playing football, is being taught by coaches to improve your football IQ.
"We want to be stewards of the game."
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