The National Basketball Association has the D-League, the National Hockey League has the American Hockey League, and Major League Baseball has an extensive minor league system. The National Football League is the only major American sport with no direct minor league feeder system.
The Canadian Football League and the Arena Football League exist, but different rules and styles of play keep them from being a true NFL pipeline. A handful of leagues have launched to help fill this void, but either massive financial losses or the not-so-brilliant idea of competing with the NFL — or both, in one case — have killed these leagues.
ESPN recently announced a broadcasting partnership with a new league called the Fall Experimental Football League that is set to kick off on October 8. Last spring, NFL Executive Vice President of Football Operations Troy Vincent made it clear that the need for a developmental league is a very real issue. Every year, roughly 800 to 900 players become unemployed after the final week of the NFL preseason, when 53-man rosters are set and practice squads are filled. For many of them, their football careers end at that moment. A league like the FXFL will give many of those players a chance to further develop and keep their NFL dreams alive.
The FXFL has laid out a plan that is vastly different from previous attempts at starting up outdoor professional football leagues. The key goal is to, first and foremost, become an official feeder league for the NFL. Second, the FXFL is focused on cost containment, an issue that has shut down practically every other non-NFL outdoor football league in the United States. With a four-team, six-week schedule planned and financially backed, the FXFL is going to become a reality when it kicks off its first game.
Here is a look at three other leagues that successfully launched but ended up folding, including what ultimately caused their demise and how the FXFL differs from each league.
United States Football League
The rise and subsequent fall of the USFL has been well documented. The league was able to successfully complete three seasons, from 1983 to 1985, by capitalizing on a growing market demand for professional football during the NFL’s offseason. In the fall of 1984, the USFL, inspired by New Jersey Generals owner Donald Trump, got greedy and announced plans to move its 1986 schedule to the fall to become direct competitors to the NFL. To make matters worse, the USFL filed an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL, claiming that the NFL had formed a television broadcasting rights monopoly. Given what we know about the guy now, this move had Trump’s fingerprints all over it.
Conspiracy theorists insist that Trump’s motivation behind the lawsuit was to hopefully kick-start absorption of the USFL by the NFL, giving him his long-desired ownership of an NFL franchise. Trump himself has repeatedly debunked this notion, but there remains a substantial amount of evidence stacked up against him.
The idea of the USFL was initially met with mockery throughout the sports world. The league turned heads when it hired then-ESPN Chief Executive Chet Simmons and gained more momentum with each big-name coach and player signed. The league reached a whole new level when it convinced 1982 Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker to forgo his senior season at Georgia and sign a three-year, $5 million contract with the New Jersey Generals.
After battling low attendance figures in its first year, the USFL responded by surprisingly adding more franchises and attempting to sign the biggest names and best players in college football. Owners were throwing truckloads of money at players, and NFL players began to follow it. The USFL was able to sign future NFL stars and Pro Football Hall of Famers Jim Kelly (pictured above), Steve Young, Reggie White, and Gary Zimmerman.
The antitrust lawsuit against the NFL was ultimately what destroyed the USFL. Though the courts ruled in favor of the upstart league, the NFL was only forced to pay the USFL $3.
The FXFL is taking a completely different approach than the USFL. While the USFL was fun, exciting, and innovative — among other slightly different rules, it used instant replay and implemented the two-point conversion long before the NFL — the FXFL is simply trying to become a NFL minor league organization. The USFL was flashy and chased big-name players; the FXFL is focused on cost containment.
Although they both will have their games broadcast on ESPN, the FXFL will hardly come close to resembling the USFL.
The XFL was founded by World Wrestling Federation owner Vince McMahon. That alone should have signaled that this league would have a hard time getting people to take it seriously. McMahon and the XFL were, however, smart enough to avoid direct competition with the NFL, but after only one season, they had lost $70 million and were forced to shut down after their broadcasting deals were not renewed.
The basis of the XFL was to be an “extreme” football league of sorts. One of the more hyped aspects of the league was the “no fair catch rule.” This rule was coupled with several other somewhat confusing rules related to punting that encouraged returns on every punt. Other intriguing differences that the XFL introduced included:
- The “opening scramble”: A 20-yard, free-for-all scramble to recover a ball that was used to replace the traditional coin toss.
- Forward motion: One offensive player outside of the tackles was allowed to move forward toward the line of scrimmage.
- No point after touchdown kicks: To start the season, teams got to run one play from the two-yard line that was worth one point. By season’s end, the rules had been changed to include two- and three-point options that started further back from the goal line.
Poor television ratings ultimately sealed the XFL’s fate. It was promoted and hyped in a very similar fashion to pro wrestling, but that wasn’t enough. By midseason, ratings and viewership were so poor that the league had to donate close to one-third of its advertising spots because ratings were falling so far below guarantees the league made to its advertisers.
From top to bottom, the FXFL will be fundamentally different than the XFL. The FXFL will focus more on producing future NFL players than putting on a show. Likewise, the FXFL is adopting nearly identical rules to the NFL and has a long-term vision that includes a NFL partnership.
United Football League
The UFL’s business plan netted losses of nine figures in roughly three-and-a-half seasons. Founded by Bill Hambrecht, the UFL built an executive staff full of people with impressive football backgrounds. The head coaches of the teams all had extensive NFL experience and they were able to fill their rosters with nearly all players with NFL experience, as well. Several UFL alumni were able to move on to play in the NFL, yet the UFL never had any intentions of being a minor league pipeline to the NFL.
The UFL began playing in fall 2009 and continued to operate for three full seasons before cutting the 2012 season short due to steadily growing financial losses. The UFL was hoping to be able to capitalize on the NFL lockout in 2011, but with no major television broadcasting deal, it was unable to gain any traction. Additionally, instead of encouraging and helping its players make the jump to the NFL, the UFL implemented a $150,000 transfer fee that could be paid by either the player or NFL team. To no surprise, this scared away most NFL franchises.
The UFL business model was heavily reliant on securing a lucrative television contract, and without it, the league was actually forced into having to pay to have its games televised. Hambrecht and the other UFL investors chose to sign big-name head coaches and pay them hefty salaries while keeping player salaries relatively modest. At the time of its closure, the league was facing lawsuits from both Dennis Green and Marty Schottenheimer for unpaid salaries.
A lot like the USFL, the UFL made the grave mistake of trying to compete with the NFL. The league did prove that there are plenty of capable players who are not in the NFL for one reason or another; it may have had a chance at survival had it altered its frivolous business model, which resulted in more than $120 million in losses and made a push to partner with the NFL. The FXFL has made it clear that it intends to avoid both direct competition with the NFL and unnecessary, extravagant expenditures.