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The Death of Amateurism: A Way Forward

Here lies the golden era of amateurism.
Here lies the golden era of amateurism.
A.M. Kuchling

Recently, while discussing upcoming changes to the NCAA's structure, the topic of amateurism came up, because of course it did.

Once the topic came up, there was some scoffing over the likelihood of the NFL creating it's own minor league system. After all, why would the NFL pay money to build a farm system when they have access to a perfectly well-functioning one for free already? This got me thinking, if the NFL wouldn't do it, why wouldn't someone else? After all, if done correctly, we've already proven that displaying pre-NFL elite athletes can generate massive income. Why wouldn't someone be willing to take on the risk to get to the potential rewards? To that end, here is the basic outline of the new league that I proposed:

It wouldn’t be that hard, right? There’s probably only enough quality athletes a year to have 8 teams. This new league puts hard caps on player salaries – say 150k. Let’s just set a roster limit of 80 players. That’s a max salary of 9.6 million a year for the whole league. That’s totally doable. Plus, it would be such that each kid makes enough in one year to cover their entire college tuition if he doesn’t make it/gets injured.

The tough part would be getting players to come. The risk would be once you sign, you could never play college ball, even if you got cut/injured. The salary should offset some portion of that uneasiness, though.

Meanwhile, every kid that’s in this league works out, has their diet monitored, and is basically treated like an NFL player (not that different from now, except they wouldn’t have to bother with class). There wouldn’t be many actual games. Maybe just a round-robin schedule with a championship game between the top two records.

Allow me to start off by changing one of the points that I came up with on the fly: roster size. I suggested a roster size of 80 players. It turns out, that was probably a bit high. The NFL has a regular season roster limit of 53 players, and the CFL and other various leagues are even lower (in the 40s). I would probably put the roster limit at 60. This automatically drops the max total player salaries for the whole league to an even more manageable 7.2 million a year.

One critique that came up was that this plan would be similar to the train wreck that was the XFL (a league started by WWE's Vince McMahon which only lasted one season). There are several reasons why this new league would be superior to that failure.

The main reason: the XFL missed the mark when picking their place. They tried to create an entity that was competing with Arena Football, the CFL and other football sideshows for the NFL's table scraps. This league isn't competing with any of that. This league exists only to steal players from the NCAA and feed them to the NFL. The difference in approach is crucial. When the XFL did their inaugural (and only) draft, they picked players from the CFL, other two-bit leagues, and kids that had left college but couldn't catch on with NFL teams. In other words, they drafted nobodies.

My new league (yes, I just took possession of it, since it has become increasingly awesome as this goes on) will have a draft, but the pool will look very different. The league will pull in the top high school recruits every year. Each player will stay a minimum of three years (per existing NFL rules) and a maximum of five years.

What's the best part about my draft plan? Drumroll please... You find out who will be in the draft on the first Wednesday in February every year. That's right. We're going straight for the NCAA jugular by stealing their thunder on their illustrious "National Signing Day". Imagine the top recruits sitting at tables around the country. In front of them are hats from Bama, Florida, Georgia, and one hat with the logo of my league. And when they select my league over the NCAA teams, fans are invested in that player. You have star power, intrigue, and publicity all in one.

Imagine the possibilities that these star-laden teams present. During the offseason, you could do a HBO Hard Knocks-style tv show, showing behind the scenes rigors of training with the hope of making it to the NFL. Since they aren't in school, they aren't bound to any type of playing schedule. We could take over Tuesday nights in the fall, capitalizing on following Monday night football ("Watch the future of the NFL... tomorrow night").

To be clear, this is a NFL farm league without NFL endorsement. NFL scouts are welcome to come and go, but the NFL pays for nothing and doesn't get a cut of anything. At least at first. I suspect once this gets up and running, the NFL would be more than happy to buy in and/or endorse the league to increase the rewards.

So far, all of this has been a pretty rosy picture. So what are the potential downfalls?

Player scarcity. What if you don't lure enough players? I don't see this being a problem. A kid can get $150k per year to play football, or he can get "a free education". One year of work would easily cover all four years of tuition, and then you're looking at pocketing up to four more years of a sizable salary ($600k for you keeping score at home). Given the choice, who would ever choose what the NCAA is offering? With the NCAA, you get a diploma, and assuming you don't make the NFL, you start "adult life" with that piece of paper and nothing else. With my league, you play, and you could have three quarters of a million dollars at the starting line, with which you can buy a piece of paper if you so desire.

Also, not only do we have high school recruits, as far as I'm concerned it's open season on all NCAA players as well. Some three-star kid comes out of nowhere his freshman year and is obviously an NFL talent? Ask him if he'd rather make 150k a year instead of nothing. A final note: on national signing day, when they announce their intention to enter the league draft, nothing is signed. Nothing is done to impair the athlete's NCAA eligibility until the draft, which would take place before the NCAA signing deadline of April 1. This way, if an athlete chose to go throught the draft, but went undrafted, he could still sign with a school and have no eligibility issues related to that decision.

Labor Union. The NFLPA wouldn't be involved because we're not affiliated with the NFL, remember? But that doesn't mean the labor wouldn't unionize. Of course they would. I would think that the league would have a strong enough position to resist most of the union's demands. After all, all negotiations would basically have this "mutually assured destruction" undertone to them. The union can't really strike, because if the league goes away, there's nowhere else for the players to go. They'll all be banned from the NCAA by rule, and at the very least two-fifths of the union body will still be ineligible for the draft. Considering this is supposed to be a league of elite prospects, I would expect that ratio to skew even younger, which means half the players will be out on their butts if the league folds. It's a better deal than they'll get anywhere else, and they can't afford to push.

From where I'm sitting, there's really only one negative that people could point to about this plan, and it's the fear that this league will wreck college football as we know it. But that's not our concern here. We're here to make money. Outside of the death of college football, what's wrong with this plan?

What other possible downsides do you guys see? Because I'm just seeing piles and piles of green. I mean, this is sounding pretty good, right? Kickstarter, anyone?