It has been 7 years since the NFL last dabbled with a developmental league. The 6-team NFL Europa, which began in 1991 as the 10-team World League of American Football, was boarded up in June 2007 after “having hemorrhaged red ink for a 15th straight year,” as ESPN’s Len Pasquarelli aptly described. The league, which had been intended to serve as a farm system of legitimate development for NFL prospects who would have otherwise not had an opportunity to play consistently, had in practice become a loophole that allowed teams to stash players overseas. In fact, NFL Europa’s level of play had sank so low by 2007 that the league’s consensus best player, JT O’Sullivan, found himself in a competition for the Bears’ third string quarterback job after the Europa season ended. Ultimately, the league that was producing neither on-field nor off-field field returns had its plug pulled because its negative cash flow was simply too significant for the notoriously business-savvy NFL owners to ignore.
Roger Goodell swiftly ended the slowly-bleeding-out NFL Europa during his first year of becoming the ninth NFL Commissioner. Why would he want to expend significant time and resources to start a new one?
Troy Vincent, the NFL’s new head of football operations, cited several meaningful benefits that would come with a new developmental league- further training for coaches and officials as well as a laboratory for testing rules to name a few. Additionally, it is undeniable that NFL Europa did manage to develop a few highly impactful NFL talents-most notably quarterbacks Kurt Warner and Jake Delhomme, both of whom started in Super Bowls.
Perhaps most tangibly, a developmental league would provide the NFL with a much larger formal feeder system. Due to significant restrictions to offseason workout and conditioning programs, along with the decision to push the Draft into May, young NFL players have received considerably less formal instruction than has been the norm for decades. With the ongoing NCAA student-athlete unionization process in flux, the collegiate ranks appear to be diminishing as a legitimate feeder league to the NFL. This is due to the tremendously altered post-high school athletics landscape that unionized NCAA athletes would create. As the Washington Post’s Donald Yee described, high school players would likely end up choosing between taking a college stipend or signing on with an NFL developmental body until they become eligible for the NFL Draft.
So times have changed since 2007 and the NFL now has a genuine need for a developmental league, but what would that league look like?
Yee playfully surmises that there might be competing NFL D-leagues, with one perhaps being patronized by sports-inclined billionaires like Larry Ellison and Mark Cuban and another being more formally tied to the NFL. A more realistic future, however, is far less exciting. Vincent stated that the league could manifest itself through several different platforms, such as perhaps a spring league or an NFL Academy. Former NFL GM Phil Savage envisions a regional league that is designed primarily to meet the league’s developmental needs, as opposed to a consumer-facing league that is more geared toward showcasing the NFL’s developing talent. Whatever the course of action that the NFL pursues, the discussion surrounding another developmental league only figures to increase in the coming years.
What do you think? Is it high time for a new NFL developmental league? Or would another D-league flop similarly to NFL Europa?