Don Yee has ideas.
The longtime NFL agent, who was on the cusp of launching a potential developmental league prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, can't stop thinking. For decades he has been contemplating the inefficiencies in the NFL's player development model, and the glaring exploitation of players in the NCAA's multi-billion dollar monopoly (which serves at its de-facto feeder system), seeking ways to give these talented young men better options.
Last season, while preparing for the launch of Pacific Pro Football -- which was to be a feeder-league option for the NFL -- he ran a series of heavily-scouted, in-season camps for young free agents (nearly half of the participants ended up on rosters somewhere). In no way did the demise of Pac Pro (the league was thisclose to landing funding from a current pro sports team owner pre-pandemic) impede his vision to find a means to serve as a conduit between young, ascending college-aged talent and the NFL executives he has built strong relationships with throughout his professional career.
With that in mind, today Yee formally announced his latest initiative, HUB Football (www.hubfootball.com), pivoting off the Pac Pro concept to find alternative means to be a headhunter of sorts for these players who have fallen through the cracks. Especially now, with clubs hesitant to bring in free agents for workouts and with the month-long shutdown of NFL travel and lack of pro days and the collapse of the XFL and AAF creating more of a void, several league sources indicated that Yee's idea is drawing rave reviews from evaluators and GMs, with the opportunity to transform the current model of player development.
"HUB aims to be the solution customized to the needs of NFL teams, elite players, and their agents," Yee said. "Right now, no product like this exists in the marketplace, which is unusual. It's the right time for innovation in professional football.
"We hope we can help the product quality at the professional football level; that is our aim, and we want to give players and their families a new tool to use to curate their own professional and developmental path. They've been powerless for too long."
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Sources said HUB already has numerous NFL teams committed as clients. It will be a subscription scouting service of sorts, serving the young free agent pool the way National Football Scouting (which runs the combine) and BLESTO serve the pool of draft-ready players every year. HUB is based in Southern California and will develop two products -- THE CAMP and THE GAME -- totally customized to the specific needs of the NFL teams, these elite free agents and their agents, many of whom are less experienced and lack the same contacts and resources that HUB possesses.
Think of it as a business-to-business product bringing these players and teams into closer contact, with HUB conducting a one-day, invitation-only camp -- dubbed THE CAMP -- for premier street free agents, where they will perform football drills designed to teach and showcase the players, while following all NFL protocols. This is similar to the two camps Pac Pro held in the fall of 2019. It will feature team scouts on sight, able to evaluate 25 or so players at one time, in a competitive setting. The first camp is projected for late September in Southern California.
HUB will also host THE GAME to supplement the NCAA supply chain, which will be customized to what GMs and college scouts prize most in their scouting process. This will consist of two games each in June and July for eligible players -- players on the verge of entering the 2022 NFL draft, or even some who may not be eligible for the draft until 2023 or 2024. This will follow the template of the Senior Bowl, with an NFL-style week of meetings with teams and practices and interviews, culminating in a game with rule changes to make it safer (no blitzing, man-to-man defense, etc.), to highlight the very individual matchups that scouts so covet.
This, too, will be invitation only, and, with players not being paid, in theory it should not impact the NCAA eligibility of younger participants. A player could opt to sit out his junior NCAA year and instead perform in THE GAME -- up to four times that spring -- then focus on school in the fall while preparing for the combine. Or an international rugby star might showcase himself in THE GAME before opting to sign with an NFL team.
"We already have commitments from multiple NFL teams to HUB, as clients, and we expect many more," Yee said. "We still are determining whether we will limit the product, however, to a certain number of teams in the league."
With so many college conferences already cancelling their seasons due to COVID-19, and with the CFL on shaky footing, I'm told there is potential for HUB to host THE GAME as early as this December to fill what could be a huge scouting void. HUB also aims to connect with NFL teams to send some of their brighter young head coaching prospects to to serve as head coaches for THE GAME, showcasing them, as well -- particularly for women and coaches of color.
Sources said HUB has been meeting with the NFL league office for years about different models; in the age of COVID-19, demand for a service like this is even higher. With college athletes finding their voice and beginning to understand their power and leverage, the NCAA model is under a very different attack; if players walk out, what happens next? There are major flaws already in the college model, and with a growing chasm between how many college programs play the game and what NFL teams expect, this is a unique time to begin providing alternatives.
"HUB can live side by side with NCAA football," Yee said, "no different (from) how minor league baseball and the G-League live side by side with the NCAA product. We hope to be a good partner and supplement to the football industry. I have spoken to numerous college football coaches, and they feel HUB can help improve the college game and its protocols as well."
Now is the time to be considering different measures and embracing progressive ideas, with the NFL set for what could be a season unlike anything we have seen, and with the future so uncertain for this sport on so many levels. It's not surprising that Yee is already ahead of the curve, and he will be the person spearheading measures like this.
Consider that the NFL is the only major sports property in the world that does not have a hand in its emerging/ascending talent -- no reserve teams or youth teams or minor leagues of any sort. It needs development options for players, coaches and officials. College players are already skipping bowl games and are seeking alternatives. The college model exposes players to massive injury risks and clubs spend huge amounts of time and money scouting college players to be subject to the whims of 130 different Division I coaches as to how much access they get to those prospects.
Potential sweeping disruptions to college and high school schedules due to the virus only heightens those issues. Which means Yee's work is far from done, as he continues to apply his own brand of critical thinking to these many ongoing issues.
"A lot of innovation is going to happen in the football industry," Yee said, "and HUB is just one example."