NFL considering developmental league; USFL a fit?

By Len Pasquarelli, The Sports Xchange
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ATLANTA -- During more than a quarter-century in which Jim Steeg worked at the league offices, and for three dozen years in the NFL overall, owners and executives doubtless learned never to underestimate the management abilities of the man arguably most responsible for elevating the Super Bowl to a national holiday.

But if the sentiments echoed at the one-day NFL spring meeting here on Tuesday are any kind of indication, the eminently resourceful Steeg, who presided over the exponential growth of the league's championship game and subsequently served as CEO of the San Diego Chargers, could face some significantly steep problems in selling his latest venture.

Steeg is chairman of the USFL board of advisors and, as widely reported over the past couple weeks, the resurrected loop hopes to reinvent itself as a developmental entity, a "feeder" league or minor league for the NFL. Part of the new league's master blueprint is to basically collaborate with the NFL, not to challenge it, as the former USFL did, prompting its demise after only three seasons.

The NBA has the "D-League," and some players have used it as a timely and providential stepping stone to the majors. So why not a developmental league for the NFL, given that there is no lack of talented players with professional aspirations who are cut before the season, or perhaps never even make it into a training camp?

The plan, if wisely and properly executed, appears to make some sense.

The problem? The NFL seems notably wary of another league, even one that has publicly cast itself as no real threat to the big-time.

"We're so tied to the colleges, I just don't know, really," Atlanta Falcons' owner Arthur Blank told The Sports Xchange. "You probably know more about it than I do. It's something I've heard and read about, but haven't done much homework on it. I guess it could be an interesting concept, but ..."

One of the reservations: There has been some casual discussion, even at the league level, of the NFL birthing and subsidizing its own developmental league.

League executive vice president of football operations Ray Anderson acknowledged there could be "some sort of merit" to a developmental league, but acknowledged that any substantive level discussions haven't gained much traction yet. In his post-meeting remarks on Tuesday afternoon, commissioner Roger Goodell cited the collective bargaining agreement struck last summer, an accord which dramatically reduces organized offseason sessions and overall contact practices in general, and conceded the new schedule "limit(s) the amount of time the younger players have to either be evaluated or develop their own skills."

Asked Goodell, rhetorically: "Should we have some sort of developmental league?"

Given the present set of circumstances facing the NFL and its commissioner, and the obvious contentiousness that still exists between the NFL and NFLPA, which seems to battle every league initiative, no matter how innocuous, an answer doesn't appear to be a priority. But neither does consummating any sort of agreement in which a remade USFL serves as a developmental surrogate.

Said Dallas owner Jerry Jones: "I don't know if it fits right now."

Goodell chuckled at a question posed by The Sports Xchange in which the term "allegedly reconstituted" was employed to characterize the reconfigured USFL.

"The first part of the question is definitely accurate," a seemingly dubious Goodell said, alluding to the suggestion that the pending league intends to recast itself in a developmental mode.

"It is something we will continue to pursue," Goodell conceded. "If we do it, my personal view is it should be defined by what the actual objective is. If it is going to be a developmental league, let's call it a developmental league; let's design it as a developmental league. If it is going to be a commercial league that is trying to generate fan interest or generate revenue, we should also be clear on that objective. I think our general view right now is to make it a developmental league."

In interviews and releases, Steeg has never portrayed the USFL -- which plans to announce eight franchise cities within the next month or two, will control player costs and contracts at the central league level, begin play in the spring of 2013, and hold its championship contest a month before NFL franchises even report for training camp -- as anything but a developmental league. But the NFL, which has fought challenges in the past from alternative leagues that initially presented themselves as only an alternative, and essentially won all of them, seems to be balking at this point at establishing a working relationship with the USFL.

One owner joked this week that the name, which conjures up negative sentiments among some veteran team and NFL officials, might have something to do with the seeming reluctance. Several colleagues, though, suggested that the NFL would want to do far more than partially subsidize the USFL, or offer tacit support, as it does with arena football. Translation: The NFL might prefer to do something on its own, rather than have someone else do it.

One example: The NFL this year bought the regional combines established by Steve Austin, and huddled them under its umbrella.

At least in words, and so far actions, Steeg and the USFL, whose advisors include longtime team executive Jim Bailey, Hall of Fame wide receiver Fred Biletnikoff, and former NFL quarterback Jeff Garcia, seem to have done things the right way. The reconstituted league, with the rights purchased by Jaime Cuadra of San Diego-based EndZone Sports Management, has embraced the single business entity model; plans to stay out of locales with an NFL or Major League Baseball franchise; will include mentoring programs to help players transition away from their football careers; and provide the NFL access to its players.

There would be, Steeg has reiterated several times, none of the right fees that other leagues have charged the NFL to sign its players.

And it would grant some semblance of relief to the football junkies who suffer from gridiron withdrawal in the spring and summer.

"The spring thing is big," Anderson said, "because the calendar in the fall is getting pretty filled up. With the Sunday and Monday games, the (enhanced) Thursday night schedule, the colleges playing on Saturdays, the spring is the way to go. But ..."

Ah, yes, there's that word again, and it might not be a good one for the USFL.

Several coaches to whom The Sports Xchange spoke this week, both head coaches and assistants, seemed split on the notion of a developmental league. And without the wholesale support of the coaching fraternity, even the NFL might be hard-pressed to introduce the concept of a developmental league. So even with his ties to the NFL, his knowledge of league inner-workings and entre to some of the game's movers and shakers, Steeg could face a difficult time.

For years, the NFL has essentially considered the colleges its minor league system. Tradition will be a tough thing to buck. In concept, a developmental USFL league may be an idea whose time has come. In the minds of some owners, not so much.

"The first thing would have to be the financial model, getting it to work, and they at least seem pointed in the right direction from what I've read," said Indianapolis owner Jim Irsay. "But we'd have to decide, too, that it's something we needed. And I'm just not really convinced of that right now, and probably a lot of other (owners) aren't, either."

Copyright (C) 2012 The Sports Xchange. All Rights Reserved.

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